Florida’s Stand Your Ground law has been made famous due in large part to the high profile cases of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, young, black, and unarmed teenagers who were shot and killed by (not black) men claiming they were threatened. The law, a result of legislative efforts promoted by right wing policy group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), does not require a person to first retreat before resorting to violence. Since its passage in 2005, application of the law has had various outcomes, leading to criticisms that the defense is inconsistently applied and has given many a license to kill.
Statistics show that the stand your ground defense has been extremely successful for those who have used it. Nearly 70 percent of defendants, who have ranged from gang members to grandparents, have avoided prosecution under the statute. In nearly 75 percent of the cases where the victim was black, the defendant received no punishment (as opposed to 59 percent if the victim was white). However, the one thing that was consistent in all the cases is that someone was either injured or killed.
When using a gun under Stand Your Ground, someone must be injured or killed. Otherwise the defendant faces a mandatory minimum sentencing under another Florida law.
Florida Statute 775.087, the so-called “10-20-Life” bill, makes it a felony to brandish a firearm or fire a gun outside of the purpose of self-defense. Each offense carries a minimum sentence of ten years. If the shot hits someone, the defendant risks 25 years to life in prison. In other words, if a person wishes to use Stand Your Ground, they can’t fire a warning shot and must shoot with the purpose to kill.
Take the case of Marissa Alexander.
Just nine days after giving birth to her child, Marissa Alexander’s husband beat her, something he had done repeatedly during their marriage and while she was pregnant. Marissa ran into the garage to try to get away from him. Finding the garage locked and unable to get out, the licensed gun owner with a concealed weapons permit, she grabbed a gun from the car and fired a warning shot to scare him away. The judge rejected Alexander’s Stand Your Ground defense, claiming that she must not have been in genuine fear of her life since she reentered the house. Ignoring the years of domestic abuse, the fact that the garage was locked, and that the law does not require retreat, Alexander was ordered to stand trial.
She was sentenced to 20 years in prison under the 10-20-life bill.
In another case, U.S. Airman Michael Giles was attending a party at a friend’s house while stationed in Tampa. While there, an argument broke out and devolved into an all out brawl. Unable to find his friends, he went back to his car to get his gun, for which he had a concealed weapons permit, and placed it in his pocket. He went back to try and find his friends and was randomly attacked, punched and fell to the ground. Fearing for his life, he fired his gun and hit the leg of his attacker, and bullet fragments injured three other men. The prosecution claimed there was no right to self defense when firing into a crowd. Giles is now two years into a 25 year prison sentence.
In light of the Marissa Alexander case, the Florida legislature has decided to modify the Stand Your Ground law to include the ability to fire warning shots. People will still have to comply with the other provisions of the law, which requires fear of bodily injury or death and be involved in lawful activity. However, if passed, it will now be legal to brandish a firearm and fire a shot in order to scare off an attacker.
Marissa Alexander was granted a new trial on appeal, which is slated to begin the end of this month. Even though the proposed law was inspired by her situation, it will do nothing for her situation if passed. The provision is to clarify that people are not required to “shoot to kill” in order to defend themselves. The law is supported by the NRA.
There is still be no requirement to retreat, however.