By Jacob Sullum
The New York Times notes the debate about "stand your ground" self-defense laws triggered by the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in Sanford, Florida:
Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says that his organization tracks laws in 21 states that extend the self-defense doctrine beyond the home. The usual label for such laws—"stand your ground"—is politically charged, he said, suggesting that a more apt label would be "Shoot first, ask questions later."
Because that description is not politically charged? Even if it turns out that George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Martin on the night of February 26, did so without justification, that does not necessarily mean Floridians were better off with a narrower definition of self-defense.
Judging from the evidence so far—in particular, Zimmerman's police call and the cellphone conversation that Martin had with his girlfriend right before the shooting—Martin would still be alive if Zimmerman had not been so eager to play cops and robbers. Although Zimmerman (who is Hispanic) singled Martin out as suspicious before he confirmed the teenager was black, that does not mean race played no role in how the encounter ended. Martin, who was staying in the neighborhood at the home of his father's girlfriend and was coming back from a convenience store where he had bought candy and a drink, was understandably angry that Zimmerman was following him and treating him like a criminal, and probably scared as well. But the crucial question in distinguishing between self-defense and criminal homicide is what happened during the ensuing altercation, when Zimmerman, who emerged from the fight with a bloody nose and a cut on the back of his head, claimed he feared he might be killed or seriously injured. Since Martin is dead and there seem to be no other eyewitnesses, that claim would be hard to assess regardless of how Florida defined self-defense. If Zimmerman said Martin knocked him down and tried to grab his gun, for example, the no-longer-binding duty to retreat presumably would not apply. And even if Zimmerman could easily have gotten away, it does not seem likely that he "shot [Martin] in cold blood," as an attorney for the boy's family asserted. The shooting may have been unjustified, but it seems to have happened in the heat of the moment.
The Times concedes that Florida's 2005 law "has been used judiciously and fairly in many cases, where it was clearly self-defense," but adds that "other cases have left prosecutors scratching their heads." The fact that prosecutors do not like the law is hardly surprising; the whole point of the statute is to protect people from prosecution in cases where they act in self-defense but cannot prove they had no opportunity to flee. That change makes things harder for prosecutors by design. The question, if we are judging the law purely on a cost-benefit basis, is whether it enables more bogus self-defense claims than legitimate ones. The Times presents no evidence that it does, although it does cite a few cases that sound questionable, such as this one:
The attacker, who was in a car, could have driven away. The victim was unarmed but had angered the attacker earlier in the night, and then he had leaned into the car.
That, of course, is the prosecutor's description. The Times also reports that the law "is increasingly used by gang members fighting gang members, drug dealers battling drug dealers and people involved in road rage encounters." Why should any of those situations preclude a legitimate self-defense claim? Drug dealers do get attacked, after all, and their line of work should not mean they have no right to resist (leaving aside the point that such violence is an utterly predictable feature of the black market created by prohibition). Even if there were a prima facie case that the "stand your ground" principle helps guilty people more often than innocent ones, that would not be the end of the matter. Our system of justice deliberately makes it hard to convict people, with the understanding that some guilty people will therefore go free. "Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer," Blackstone famously declared, and while his ratio may be debatable, the general thrust of his argument usually appeals to progressives, except when the right to armed self-defense is involved.