The Washington Post has a blockbuster story on how the passage of the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida has “coincided with a sharp increase in justifiable-homicide cases.” The piece documents three cases, all ambiguous (at best), and all heartbreaking, of shootings that did not lead to prosecutions or convictions because of the new law.
One interesting part of the piece is exactly what motivated this surge in legislation across the country that protects people who shoot when they think they are being threatened with deadly force and puts legal and procedural barriers in front of prosecutors who seek to charge those who say they have killed in self-defense:
When she [an NRA lobbyist] helped write the Stand Your Ground bill and circulated it, some police chiefs and other law enforcement officials warned that the measure would make it hard to convict people of murder — defendants would simply claim self-defense and challenge prosecutors to prove they were lying.
But those concerns were heavily outweighed by lawmakers’ desire to send a message to taxpayers that the justice system would no longer consider suspect those who defend themselves against attack.
In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and amid images of lawlessness in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, many Floridians — and Americans generally — felt less safe and believed the justice system could not protect victims, said a study of Stand Your Ground laws by the National District Attorneys Association.
In Florida, where looters appeared in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Hammer launched her drive for the new law based on the case of James Workman, a 77-year-old Pensacola man who fatally shot an intruder who entered the trailer Workman was living in after the storm damaged his house.
Prosecutors decided not to charge Workman, but many lawmakers pronounced themselves appalled that he had to endure months of uncertainty before being cleared.
Hammer told legislators her bill would protect citizens who simply defended themselves: “You can’t expect a victim to wait before taking action to protect herself and say, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Criminal, did you drag me into this alley to rape and kill me, or do you just want to beat me up and steal my purse?’â€Š”
The Florida Senate passed the bill unanimously.
What is striking here is the two events that are listed are not things that would rationally lead to protecting those who respond to deadly force with deadly force. It’s hard to see how being able to “stand your ground” will prevent a spectacular, large-scale terrorist attack. More importantly, the lawlessness seen after Katrina was, for the most part, exactly the type of thing that should not be responded to with violent force. In so much as looting occurred in New Orleans, stealing food (or televisions or whatever) is not the same thing as possibly deadly assault. And this obsession with looters lead to a misguided policy response. As explained by Rebecca Solnit, the focus on preventing looting lead to police officers doing less search-and-rescue “even though thousands of residents were still stranded in the most dire conditions in modern American disaster history.”
Susan Faludi, in her book on the cultural response to September 11, The Terror Dream, linked the media’s fascination with guns and self-defense and the absence of serious gun control efforts to percisely this post-9/11 anxiety that the Post points to as a reason for the popularity of “Stand Your Ground.”
What’s significant about all of this is that gun policy seems to have more to do with identity, fear, and cultural change than public safety, even if changes in gun policy can have an effect on public safety. Another example of this dynamic is the spate of news reports documenting an increase in gun sales link to Obama’s election and his possible reelection. This, along with the NRA’s more-or-less evidence free campaign to convince its supporters that Obama is this close to taking away their guns, is what makes the efforts of some conservative media figures to promote racial suspicion and hostility between black and whites so disturbing. So, while, pseudo-scientific racialist John Derbyshire has been written out of the movement, Rush Limbaugh, who said that “in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering” and frequently says that the Obama policy agenda is motivated by a desire to redistribute income from whites to blacks is still a popular and respected figure. And there are other writers at National Review, like Victor Davis Hanson, who see the Obama policy agenda as primarily motivated by race.
Racial suspicion and guns are not a good mix.