This article attempts to perform a stepwise review of issues surrounding what was at the time a highly politicized debate fueled by press coverage of the Zimmerman-Martin case in the State of Florida.
Originally published April 27, 2012 in the Huffington Post,
Recent high-profile current events have called into question legal statutes commonly known as "Stand Your Ground" laws. Sparked by a frenzy of media coverage of a shooting in Florida that is now thankfully winding its way through the real court system, pundits have engaged in weeks of knee jerk tabloid rhetoric. The press and social media would have you believe that fifty years of social progress in the Unites States never happened. A good deal of the rhetoric draws on overtones from issues that, while meaningful to the American experience, are just projections by the minds of others upon the actions of the principals involved.
Regardless of the noise, I believe that those calling for a review of these laws have a point. America is a social experiment that should never be afraid to examine itself in the mirror, no matter how uncomfortable that look into our souls almost always is. I believe that to properly reflect on these laws we need to look at them from three angles that lend clarity to what is useful about them, and to what needs to be done to balance the needs they address with the social issues they raise.
On the Question of Legitimate Self-Defense
The real world has very real dangers and "Stand Your Ground" laws are, first and foremost, legal affirmations of the right of people to defend themselves against crime. These laws were specifically designed to strengthen the legal protections afforded the defender in the aftermath of a criminal confrontation, and are heavily in favor of their actions to resist predation up to and including the use of deadly force. State law in the United States is far from uniform, and not all jurisdictions recognized this right, and in some cases would prosecute persons who defended themselves -- victimizing them a second time.
The primary innovation of these latest iterations of laws is that they extend the right to defend oneself beyond home or place of business, the so-called Castle Doctrine, to defending oneself anywhere a criminal attempts to victimize them. To be effective, these laws require what is called a "credible deterrent." This is why they tend to be enacted in parallel with changes in firearms laws that facilitate equipping a person with a workable means to defend himself against violent, armed criminals. Regardless of one's views on gun control, from a tactical perspective there is little to refute the notion that the tool of choice against a criminal with a firearm is, in fact, another firearm wielded by a defender with superior weapons proficiency. And so we see the emergence of statutes that are generally known as Concealed Carry Weapons (CCW) Permit laws, which in most jurisdictions come with an elevated training requirement in order to obtain said permit.
The combination of the two thus creates a crime risk management regime based on principles of deterrence against predation that equalize the engagement odds, significantly raise the perception of risk to the criminal, incent them to ply their illicit trade elsewhere and, as a last recourse, increase the attrition rate of violent criminals over time. In case you haven't figured it out yet, this is not meant to be a politically polite narrative that coddles a sub-culture of wrongdoers.
An operative aspect of these laws is that society does not actually need 100 percent of the population to take on a stand-your-ground outlook and armed-carry lifestyle to achieve the desired criminal deterrence effect. In fact, only a small portion of the public needs do so to create sufficient uncertainty of risk in the mind of the criminal sufficient to alter behavior patterns. The rest of society can free ride, even disdainfully so, so long as they don't advertise that they are a helpless mark.
This brings up the first policy question. Regardless of whether you participate or free ride, do you believe that law-abiding citizens should, or should not, be able to resist crime in a manner unfettered by laws that restrict or punish them for doing so? If you do, then the direction of the evolution of these SYG laws and their accompanying CCW laws should make some -- even if uncomfortable -- sense to you.
On the Question of Acceptable Conduct in Non-Defensive Confrontational Situations
If there's a hole in the design of the SYG + CCW laws it's that it is too silent on the expectations of conduct by persons in confrontational but not defensive situations. These laws were designed for the purpose of enabling lethal-force-level defense against violent criminal threats.
Where these laws are running into problems seems to be in situations which the laws were not originally designed for. For instance, situations where the problem is philosophical, political or emotional should probably be more strongly tied to a burden of extraordinary proof of attempts by both parties to de-escalate the situation, extract from the situation, or otherwise lose gracefully. Similarly, persons creating potentially violence escalating scenarios where other pathways for solving the problem are available would seem to merit looking at additional statutory treatment. An armed individual does seem to me have an extraordinary responsibility to be part of at least attempting in good faith to manage down the tensions of the moment. Well, actually, don't we all have a responsibility as fellow citizens to do that anyway?
This brings up the second policy question. How does one engage all parties in a constructive dialog to add a new body of legal guidance to further define the circumstances and expectations of people in confrontational, but not defensive, situations? Our cultural differences combined with our hot heads do bring to mind that old Jeffersonian term, "frailties of man." This is a very different line of legislative remedy evolution from the knee jerk calls to junk these laws. But as I ponder the call to action of recent events, this seems to be where work needs to be done.
On the Question of Civility among People of Differing Ideologies
Changes in operational security procedure -- and this is what SYG+ CCW is -- have consequences. These consequences run deeper into our social fabric than we realize. Laws that build a society with a mixture of armed and unarmed citizens bring change to the dynamic of civility among the law abiders. Such a social compact becomes co-dependent in providing for the common defense and -- oh the horror --we actually have to acknowledge goodness in people we may have been otherwise politically uncivil to. People like well-armed minorities, liberals, conservatives, gays and lesbians, Muslims and the catch-all bucket that now apparently includes all white and mixed race folk. They may share only one thing in common. They are all law abiding Americans.
This need to see each other with real tolerance can and does perplex a lot of people. Politicians, lobbyists, academics and really hard core prejudiced -- racial and political -- people in particular would be very threatened if the general population actually discovered how much more we have in common than the spin they use to keep us apart.
All this means that we need to learn how to disagree intellectually -- even passionately so -- while at the same time valuing and respecting each other in those things having to do with our common interests. That can be a lot to ask of a people that have at times confused politics with real life. And it brings us to confronting our last policy question.
Should the expectation of tolerance and civility between citizens become a renewed priority of American domestic policy? In some ways this question asks, is being what makes us American still important to us? It's a vital question that goes to the very heart of our national identity.
If you say yes, it implies changing our political landscape to dismantle or moderate the political institutions and special interests that impede the social connectedness we need. It means altering our human expectations of each other and the subtle cues we give each other in everyday life that help us separate allies from foes on our streets and in our hearts. You can say yes, I'd like to change it so that we see each other through new eyes. If enough people say so, leaders will either fall in line with this consensus or be replaced.
You can also say no, others be damned, I'd rather hang on to my piece of my world. But bear in mind that the history of the world is strewn with examples of this path leading to the very different conclusion of a country much closer to an aristocratic caste which controls the fate of a third-world-style nation of second class citizens. That usually doesn't end well.