from the February 24, 2006 edition of the Christian Science Monitor
Some say proposed laws can help deter gun violence.
Others worry about deadly confrontations.
By Patrik Jonsson | Staff writer of The Christian
ATLANTA – Instead of embracing a citizen’s “duty to
retreat” in the face of a physical attack, states may
be taking cues from the days of lawless frontier
towns, where non-deputized Americans were within their
rights to hold the bad guys at bay with the threat of
First enacted in Florida last year, “Stand Your
Ground” bills are now being considered in 21 states
including Georgia, according to the National Rifle
Association and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun
Violence. The South Dakota senate approved one just
These new measures would push the boundaries beyond
the self-defense measures already on the books. Twelve
states already allow citizens to shoot intruders in
their homes, and 38 states permit concealed weapons in
public places. The “Stand Your Ground” laws would
allow people to defend themselves with deadly force
even in public places when they perceive a
life-threatening situation for themselves or others,
and they would not be held accountable in criminal or
civil court even if bystanders are injured.
Laws putting more judgment in an individual’s hands
stem from people’s increased concern about crime in
their communities. Proponents say it helps shift the
debate from gun control to crime control, and that
these laws are part of the rugged individualism of
“These laws send a more general message to society
that public spaces belong to the public – and the
public will protect [public places] rather than trying
to run into the bathroom of the nearest Starbucks and
hope the police show up,” says David Kopel, director
of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colo.
Some critics say such “Wild West” laws are vigilante
justice, and commonplace confrontations and more
likely turn to violence.
“You don’t just broadly paint a new statewide law
saying, if you’re in doubt, go ahead and shoot and
kill the other person,” says Peter Hamm, spokesman for
the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in
Washington. “It’s anathema to peace and calm in our
Currently, Florida’s new law is being tested for the
first time. In Tampa, a tow- truck operator who shot
and killed a man he said was trying to run him over
used the “Stand Your Ground” law as a defense. The
district attorney is evaluating other forensic
evidence and eyewitness testimony that the shots came
from behind, and therefore were not in self-defense.
To be sure, the laws challenge the notion of “duty to
retreat” from attack upheld by many state supreme
courts. Yet the US Supreme Court came down against the
“duty to retreat” in a 1921 ruling.
In 2004, a National Academies of Science study was
unable to draw any conclusions about whether owing a
gun makes citizens safer.
About 35 percent of American homes contain some kind
of firearm, according to Center for Gun Policy and
Research at Johns Hopkins University. Their research
also shows that while there are 1.3 million
gun-related crimes committed in the US each year, guns
are used for self-defense 108,000 times in the same
Indeed, those lobbying for the “Stand Your Ground”
legislation say the proposed laws are more symbolic,
sending a powerful message to would-be criminals.
These laws “make it very clear that the good guy has
the advantage, not the bad guy,” says Wayne LaPierre,
CEO of the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Va.
However, many observers say the laws may promote gun
violence as urban gangs could claim self-protection in
the aftermath of shootouts. In Michigan this week,
people protested a proposed “Stand Your Ground” law by
wearing orange “innocent bystander” T-shirts. It came
only a few days after an 8-year-old boy was killed in
Detroit by a stray bullet from a gun fight.
“Stand Your Ground” laws could also change the way
Americans deal with each other, some experts say.
“If you’re in a state that’s passed one of these laws,
any time you’re in a potential confrontation you’ll
have to think about the fact that, ‘Will the fellow on
the other side misunderstand my anger and pull out a
gun?’ ” says Robert Batey, a law professor at Stetson
University in St. Petersburg, Fla.