Don’t Make a Bad Stand Your Ground Law Worse

This opinion article originally appeared on Tallahassee.com.

As the country reels from the outcome of the Jordan Davis case and national conversations abound on the need to repeal Stand Your Ground laws, the Florida Legislature is steadily working to expand the law. We are left stunned and bewildered as we see ill-conceived bills on the threatened use of force hurtle towards passage with bipartisan support.

One might think that, logically, after 134 documented fatal cases in which Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was invoked or played a role, legislators would reconsider the law’s effectiveness. Twenty-six of those cases involved the deaths of children and teens — including 9-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins, a little girl killed in the crossfire of a dispute in which the shooter raised the Stand Your Ground defense. In the face of these horrific statistics, any reasonable lawmaker would question whether the law deters violence or, in fact, encourages it.

Yet, almost callously so, some lawmakers are not just continuing to express full-throated support for the law. Much to our alarm, they are now doubling down.

Over the past two weeks, both houses of the Legislature have voted overwhelmingly to expand Stand Your Ground by approving CS/CS/HB 89 and SB 448, the so-called “Warning Shot Bills.” The bills would build upon the rotten foundation of the self-defense law, including Stand Your Ground, to allow immunity for the threatened use of force, such as firing a warning shot. Though its supporters claim the bill would help in cases such as Marissa Alexander, the black Jacksonville woman who received a 20-year sentence for firing warning shots at her husband, that argument is disturbingly short-sighted. Contrary to the distorted messaging around the “warning shot bills,” these bills will make it easier for Floridians to shoot before thinking twice.

Opponents of mandatory minimum sentences are supporting these bills, despite the potential disastrous consequences for racial minorities. Yes, mandatory minimums need to be repealed, but not on the back of a bill that expands Stand Your Ground. We cannot accept that an expansion of the Stand Your Ground law is the poison pill we must take to reform mandatory minimums.

The “warning shot bills” are frighteningly expansive, with no specific details on the situations in which “threatened use of force with defensive intent” could be justified. As written, the bills vaguely allow anybody who feels threatened to pull out a gun and fire shots anywhere — in a home, in a vehicle, in a public space — with immunity. It encourages aggressive behavior toward subjective fears without requiring a person to attempt to remove him or herself from the situation. It leaves intact all of the provisions of the Stand Your Ground law that have shown themselves to be confusing, problematic and subjectively applied based on one’s worldview.

The recent Michael Dunn trial exposed the ways in which the Stand Your Ground law muddies the boundaries of self-defense so much that the imagination of the shooter is given the same weight as the reality of the victim’s death.

We know there is a better way. During the Dream Defenders’ 31-day sit-in at the Florida Capitol last summer to address the state’s criminalization of young people, we created a series of bills, collectively titled “Trayvon’s Law.” This legislation would deter racial profiling, reduce the effects of the school-to-prison-pipeline and reform the Stand Your Ground law.

In our measure to reform Stand Your Ground, the Dream Defenders build on SB 112, the measure Sen. Chris Smith originally filed last August. Our measure includes a duty to retreat if possible, deletes section 776.013(3), which includes the language used in jury instructions on how to apply Stand Your Ground, and defines “unlawful activity” to mean those activities prohibited by the laws of Florida. These changes will carefully circumscribe the situations where the use of deadly force may be justified, ensuring that the public is not needlessly put in danger. These changes will also ensure that Florida is not offering immunity in an overly broad set of circumstances.

The Dream Defenders’ bill also revives the section of Sen. Smith’s original legislation on mandatory minimum sentencing, since it is an important provision to help avoid cases such as that of Marissa Alexander. Recent news that the prosecution in Alexander’s case will seek consecutive mandatory minimum sentencing makes this provision all the more important.

Conversely, the bills now before the Legislature would do none of this and may actually make things worse for defendants like Alexander. Communities of color know that the criminal justice system has long been structurally skewed. We should never settle for solutions that merely tinker, leaving a fundamentally unjust framework intact.

It’s time for a wholesale reform of Florida’s so-called “Stand your Ground” law. This is the only way to prevent the unwanted outcomes we’ve seen in recent cases and move toward a more just society.

Ciara Taylor is political director for the youth justice organization Dream Defenders. Meena Jagannath works with the Community Justice Project for Florida Legal Services.