In the last year, 15 states have enacted laws that expand the right of self-defense, allowing crime victims to use deadly force in situations that might formerly have subjected them to prosecution for murder.
Supporters call them ”œstand your ground” laws. Opponents call them ”œshoot first” laws.
The Florida law, which served as a model for the others, gives people the right to use deadly force against intruders entering their homes. They no longer need to prove that they feared for their safety, only that the person they killed had intruded unlawfully and forcefully. The law also extends this principle to vehicles.
In addition, the law does away with an earlier requirement that a person attacked in a public place must retreat if possible. Now, that same person, in the law’s words, ”œhas no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.” The law also forbids the arrest, detention or prosecution of the people covered by the law, and it prohibits civil suits against them.
”œIn effect,” Professor Sebok said, ”œthe law allows citizens to kill other citizens in defense of property.”
This month, a jury in West Palm Beach, Fla., will hear the retrial of a murder case that illustrates the dividing line between the old law and the new one. In November 2004, before the new law was enacted, a cabdriver in West Palm Beach killed a drunken passenger in an altercation after dropping him off.
The first jury deadlocked 9-to-3 in favor of convicting the driver, Robert Lee Smiley Jr., said Henry Munnilal, the jury foreman.
”œMr. Smiley had a lot of chances to retreat and to avoid an escalation,” said Mr. Munnilal, a 62-year-old accountant. ”œHe could have just gotten in his cab and left. The thing could have been avoided, and a man’s life would have been saved.”
Mr. Smiley tried to invoke the new law, which does away with the duty to retreat and would almost certainly have meant his acquittal, but an appeals court refused to apply it retroactively. He has appealed that issue to the Florida Supreme Court.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the N.R.A., said the Florida law had sent a needed message to law-abiding citizens.
”œIf they make a decision to save their lives in the split second they are being attacked, the law is on their side,” Mr. LaPierre said. ”œGood people make good decisions. That’s why they’re good people. If you’re going to empower someone, empower the crime victim.”
The N.R.A. said it would lobby for versions of the law in eight more states in 2007.
Sarah Brady, chairwoman of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said her group would fight those efforts. ”œIn a way,” Ms. Brady said of the new laws, ”œit’s a license to kill.”
Many prosecutors oppose the laws, saying they are unnecessary at best and pernicious at worst. ”œThey’re basically giving citizens more rights to use deadly force than we give police officers, and with less review,” said Paul A. Logli, president of the National District Attorneys Association.
But some legal experts doubt the laws will make a practical difference. ”œIt’s inconceivable to me that one in a hundred Floridians could tell you how the law has changed,” said Gary Kleck, who teaches criminology at Florida State University.
Even before the new laws, Professor Kleck added, claims of self-defense were often accepted. ”œIn the South,” he said, ”œthey more or less give the benefit of the doubt to the alleged victim’s account.”
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