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Wednesday, Oct 01, 2014
South Tampa News

O’Neill: Time to change ‘stand your ground’ law


Published:

Here we go again, you must be thinking.

No, here we are still. Call it a Florida state of mind. “Gunshine State” is now as well-worn a cliché as “Flori-duh.” And that won’t change as long as we keep providing ammunition for rhetorical overkill. But at least nobody died from a hanging chad.

After our most recent notorious case of someone shooting and killing an unarmed person — the ultimate silencer of loud music — it would be unconscionable if the Florida Legislature doesn’t either repeal or amend SYG. That said, anyone not expecting the unconscionable out of Tallahassee this session? Anyone not expecting the squeakiest of cogwheels, the National Rifle Association, to all but assure the status quo?

Maybe it will take a texting legislator on the wrong end of a gun-barrel confrontation to change course. Maybe Marion Hammer will have to morph into Mahatma Hammer.

Or maybe enough-is-enough will finally prevail. Even here. Better a long shot than a gunshot.

What can’t keep happening, however, is the politically partisan characterization of the issue as a zero-sum confrontation between common sensical, Second Amendment guardians who believe in self-protection vs. cluelessly naive, gun-rights-undermining liberals who have no respect for our Founding Fathers. An ongoing scenario, where compromise is seen by too many as a prostituted principle, is in nobody’s best interest.

What also can’t keep happening are further iterations of the law of unintended consequences. We’re smarter than this, aren’t we?

Just because it sounded sensible in 2005 to further protect Floridians who felt “threatened,” doesn’t mean we remain indifferent to its manifestly obvious, consequent abuses. The Biggert-Waters Act on flood insurance, as we well know, also appeared to make sense back in 2012.

The point is this: We now know, do we ever, that an alarming, Mack truck-sized loophole of ambiguity exists in legally allowing defendants broad discretion — in using deadly force — about their “reasonable” fears of bodily harm. Absent a duty to retreat if it’s an option, this is a deadly brew, as we — and the rest of the country — have been seeing.

And it’s not just the high-profile, tragic cases of Trayvon Martin, Chad Oulson and Jordan Davis that have been impacted. Studies have shown that SYG has been used in defense of drug dealers and other violent offenders, many of whom actually initiated, not unlike George Zimmerman, the confrontation. Many of whom went free.

Imagine, a defendant can insert himself into a confrontation-causing situation, where he may very well be the only one armed, and then make the call — often in post-facto fashion — that he is subsequently in fear of bodily harm, not feel legally obligated to retreat and employ whatever force he’s packing. That’s not standing your ground. That’s usurping it.

The Florida phenomenon recently prompted this disconcerting comment from John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Dennis Kenney. “For a free society to work, the police have to have a monopoly on legal violence,” said Kenney. “That requirement is now doubtful in Florida.”

Ouch.

Moreover, even if SYG isn’t “invoked,” it is still a viable factor because jury instructions — thanks to the Florida Supreme Court — have been modified to reflect the SYG reality. It’s the elephant in the jury box.

The bottom line here is more than a Legislature in bed with the NRA and co-opted by an ideological wish list. It’s Florida’s gun culture.

We’ve seen it manifested earlier this year when a gun-rights group sued to force state universities to allow guns in on-campus housing and in on-campus cars. Who, after all, would want to find himself unarmed in a road-rage incident on the way to school?

It’s reflected in the 1.1 million Floridians with a license to conceal and carry. Anyone really think that has made for a safer society?

It’s why a popcorn assault at the Cobb Grove 16 wasn’t responded to with a hail of Cracker Jacks instead of gunfire. It’s because the annoyed defendant fatefully had his piece with him at the theater. You’re packing a .380 semiautomatic for a movie? You betcha. Never know when somebody will need to be put in their place.

It’s beyond problematic when packing a concealed weapon for self-defense is seen not as a failure of civil society, to be lamented, but as an act of citizenship to be celebrated.

It’s also beyond problematic that the Legislative session, which begins this week, will do what’s right — and not just reference polls and expectations of the usual suspects. Chances are, SYG will still be standing. And seemingly still in the headlines as another high-profile defendant recognizes his right not to retreat and “reasonably believes,” however dubiously defined, that it’s necessary to shoot to protect himself from bodily harm. It’s coming.

You can reasonably believe it.

Wilder eyes draft

Plant High alum James Wilder is hoping the impression he made at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis helps his upcoming draft status. The 6-foot-2-inch, 229-pound Florida State running back, who is forgoing his senior year in Tallahassee, is projected as a fourth or fifth-rounder. All in all, not bad for player who didn’t start in his three years at FSU — and one who most schools had recruited as a linebacker.

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