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Op-Ed: Why I Wrote 'Stand Your Ground' Law


And now The Opinion Page. As reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin continues to reverberate across the country, it's important to remember we still don't know exactly what happened when George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed teenager. But we do know that the neighborhood watch volunteer pursued Trayvon Martin against police advice, and his lawyer cited Florida's Stand Your Ground law as the basis of his claim to self-defense. Proponents argue the law just allows a person to respond with force if attacked. Critics say it gives citizens unfettered power without accountability.

If threatened, where's the line? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Florida State Representative Dennis Baxley joins us on the phone from Ocala, Florida. He was the prime sponsor of Stand Your Ground. In a piece for Fox News, he wrote he still considers that a good law, but that from what he's seen it does not apply in the Trayvon Martin case. And, Representative Baxley, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE DENNIS BAXLEY: Thank you very much. Glad to be with you.

CONAN: And again, we don't know all the details of the confrontation. What makes you think that Stand Your Ground does not apply to George Zimmerman's defense?

BAXLEY: Well, simply because if you carefully read the statute, which most of the critics have not, and read the legislative analysis, there's nothing in this statute that authorizes you to pursue or confront other people. If anything, this law would have protected the victim in this case; it could have.

CONAN: It could have.

BAXLEY: So - and in fact, the gentleman - Mr. Zimmerman's attorney, who when he first appeared on CNN the other night, he actually said he was not going to use this statute. The governor, Jeb Bush, has said it does not apply.

CONAN: That's the previous governor.

BAXLEY: Yes, the former governor who signed it. The Senate sponsor, Senator Peaden, former senator, he's in the panhandle. He said it doesn't apply. From my review, I certainly - it certainly wasn't the intent of any of us to protect anyone who was pursuing and confronting other people. It was when an individual law-abiding citizen was the subject and the victim of a violent attack. And an investigation always has to be done to determine that. I think in this case the important thing is we have a template moving forward.

The emotion and the outcry has been over the fact that nothing was happening. Now, a lot is happening. We have a grand jury empanelled who will fully review all the facts. We have a new prosecutor, special prosecutor appointed to review all the facts of this case. And after they act, there's also been a taskforce put together by Governor Scott to review the matter and see if any legislative issues need to be addressed.

They may not be this statute itself. It may be some kind of regulation regarding crime watch. It may be some kind of regulation other than this statute that simply says no other statute is designed - you know, stands to protect you if you are pursuing or confronting people.

CONAN: Before your law, Florida law said that if there's a safe line of retreat - and this is still the case in many states - someone who's threatened has an obligation to take those steps back before resort to force. What's wrong with that?

BAXLEY: The duty to retreat puts the person at great risk, and it's a Monday morning quarterback situation. We can all sit and analyze for hours what someone could have done. But in fact, a victim of a violent attack has seconds to decide if they want to live or they want to die or they want to be a victim of violence, such as rape or a beating. And I think in those circumstances, we need to give that law-abiding citizen the benefit of the doubt and stand beside them and say if you can stop a violent act from occurring that's going to victimize you and your family, that we're going to stand with you.

CONAN: There are those who say that, I think, since this law went into effect the number of cases described as justifiable homicide has tripled in Florida.

BAXLEY: I think that actually indicates that the law is working because it says that a number of people have not been prosecuted for defending themselves. It says that in those cases, the perpetrator bore the brunt of their choice rather than being able to brutalize or victimize another person. So I think those statistics show something very different. At the same time, we have seen over this period of time, this is not a new law. It's been out there since '05. There's been a consistent decrease in violent crime, and I think it's part of a mosaic of things that are done in public policy to discourage violent crime.

CONAN: To be fair, that reduction in violent crime has occurred in states also that do not have such a law.

BAXLEY: Yes, but we're not a outlier in this. This law went to 26 more states and some form of it is in existence in, you know, half the country.

CONAN: There is also the testimony - and this was in an op-ed in The New York Times by John Timoney, who was the former chief of police in Miami. He said - he pointed out that this law was almost guaranteed to have, he said, recipe for disaster. I asked the bill's sponsor, he wrote in The New York Times, State Representative Dennis K. Baxley, to point to any case in Florida where a homeowner had been indicted or arrested as a result of defending his castle, and he could not come up with a single one.

BAXLEY: Well, I don't catalogue or enumerate those, but believe me, I get thanked every week almost for passing this and for what it did to empower people in defense. And, in fact, they were prosecuting people. And the thing was, it was not canonized into statute, the - even the duty to retreat. This was all discretionary on the part of the prosecutor. It was in common law the Castle Doctrine, was applied, and it was a complete discretion of the prosecutor as to whether he thought he should prosecute this individual or not.

And the impetus for Florida came after five hurricanes. We had communities being looted. A 77-year-old gentleman brings in an RV to stay there to protect his property from looting. He was invaded in the RV by a perpetrator. He shot this individual, and it was months before he knew whether he might be charged for a crime for simply defending himself, and, of course, he had to hire defense attorneys to do so.

CONAN: Yet that was in his home. Why - that's the original idea of the Castle Law. You can defend your own home. Why take it outside the context of the home?

BAXLEY: Why would you lose the right to protect yourself from harm simply because you're in a parking garage, or you're walking down the street minding your business or riding your bike and attacked by a group of thugs? You should still have the right to defend yourself from harm, and you should have no duty to retreat when the perpetrators of violence are approaching you, and you're doing nothing but going to the normal daily routine of life whether you're at a park or a parking garage. We've had plenty of incidents where this has occurred, and it's well documented.

CONAN: And finally - we'll get to calls in just a minute, but does this law need to go hand-in-hand with laws on - that allow carrying firearms?

BAXLEY: Well, I think there is a parallel, but actually there's not a firearm in this statute.

CONAN: No. I understand that.

BAXLEY: It simply says you can defend yourself. You can use a chair leg if that's what you have. But the fact is you're protected to defend yourself against a violent attack after an investigation verifies that that's exactly what happened.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest again is Representative - Florida State Representative Dennis Baxley. 800-989-8255. Email: Talk@npr.org. T.J. is on the line with us from Sunnyvale in California.

T.J.: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm making the call just to ask whether or not where I thought the line should be drawn. I think it's when you're under attack, exactly. Since we have a Florida legislator here, perhaps he can do a comparison and provide some instruction in comparison to the Trevor Dooley case in Tampa where an elderly black man was set upon by a white fellow, and the gun the black man was carrying went off. That seems to be the generally agreed thing. And this fellow has been charged of manslaughter. I'll take my comment off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Are you familiar with the case, Representative Baxley?

BAXLEY: I'm not, but I think the caller has really hit the nail on the head. This is not about this statute. What this is about is the underlying concern about the disproportionate or unfair or unjust application of the laws that we have. And I think that's the emotion that's - excuse me - rising in this situation - this whole situation with Mr. Martin. It's not about two men on a sidewalk. What you're doing is unearthing a whole deeper concern about inequities and how laws are applied.

And if anything good could come out of such a terrible tragedy - and certainly, the lost of a child in this circumstance is tragic and seems unnecessary - the thing that could come out of it is a clarification of how these laws are applied. But to say that we're going to summarily, because of an incident, dismiss the rights of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves from harm and put them in a posture that they have to defend themselves from their own government for doing what we should be doing with/and for them, I think, is the wrong response.

CONAN: My colleague, Greg Allen, reported from Miami that a judge there dismissed murder charges against a man who chased a suspected burglar for more than a block before catching him and stabbing him to death. Is that - just on the basis of that sketchy - admittedly sketchy description, is that an appropriate application of the law?

BAXLEY: That sounds like another real problem with application. And, you know, as I say, if you thoroughly review this statute, it's very clear that you have to be a law-abiding citizen who's doing nothing wrong and that you're under a violent attack, not just to go out and pursue to protect your property or protect something else. These applications are a misunderstanding of this statute. And I think, hopefully, that we will come through this process - there is a template in place, and I think the grand jury's results and the task force response will help in this clarification, but that doesn't mean that the statute itself is bad policy.

CONAN: Dennis Baxley is with us. You can find a link to his Fox News op-ed on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Les is on the line. Les with us from Caldwell in Idaho.

LES: Hi. Good morning. I really appreciate the opportunity to comment on this. I wanted to ask the representative if there is a concept of proportionality of force built in to the Stand Your Ground law. And this is where it comes from: I personally have a black belt in martial law, and one of the concepts that's built into us, drilled into us is that you cannot respond with lethal force if you are not being threatened with lethal force. In fact, the foundation of the style that I practice and teach is that the first thing we should always do is avoid or resolve any potential situation. And then if we're attacked, we only reply with the minimum amount of force needed. And so in this case, it seems pretty clear that Trayvon Martin was unarmed. And so if there is not a proportionality of force built into this Stand Your Ground law, why would there not be?

BAXLEY: That's an excellent question, and, in fact, there is proportionality. This bill talks about meeting force with force. It doesn't say automatically use, you know, force that requires the death of the other person or lethal force. It says you're allowed to meet force with force, including, if necessary, the lethal force to stop the attack. And so there is a discussion about that acceleration. That is not the same as a duty to retreat, but it means, you know, to me, force with force means that if you're yelling at me, I can yell back. If you're pumping me on the chest, I can pump you on the chest. But if you got your hands around my neck to choke me to death, then I can stop that lethal attack.

The problem is, again, this is much easier to analyze as armchair quarterbacks on Monday than it is during the game on Friday night when, in fact, that person has to have the benefit of making the judgment. If it's a 200-pound assailant and you're a 150-pound woman, it's unlikely that you could make the judgment that she, you know, hasn't - how do you equalize that argument? They have to make that within seconds: To decide, do they want to be a victim of this assault, or do they want to stop this assault? And do they know that we'll be with them and be on their side if they stop this assault?

And so it's not just armed or disarmed or, you know, all these different factors. But, yes, sir, there is a proportionality that is called meet force with force. So the level of force would be proportionate to the sense that you sensed the attack, but you leave the judgment, in this statute, with victim because they're the one having to make a decision about a response.

CONAN: Les, thanks very much for the call.

LES: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Representative Baxley, there have been altogether too many incidents where police officers who are, of course, trained for these sorts of situations mistake someone reaching for a cell phone or something else like that, for reaching for a weapon and, feeling threatened, respond with lethal force. Aren't you just - by giving citizens more scope to do that as well, increasing the number of situations where those kinds of mistakes can be made?

BAXLEY: I don't think so. And if we are, it's necessary in order to allow law-abiding citizens to protect themselves from harm. The fact is, in most of these cases, law enforcement is not going to arrive until it's all over. I have a son that's a deputy sheriff. You know, he says, Dad, you should carry a concealed weapon permit, a fire arm in your vehicle. Because if you travel, you're on the side of the road, there are people looking for victims for violence. And we - when - by the time we get there, it's over. All we're doing is stringing out the tape and defining what happened at the crime scene.

So I think, given the violence - and a lot of this, quite frankly, is something no one's addressing, and that is the underlying problem of drug addiction in this country. And we all know that people that have addictions to substance abuse - some law enforcement estimate as much as 80 percent. So everything feeds that addiction, and they will behave in herculean ways against their own family, against others. Everything is yielded to that addiction. And somehow we're overlooking the fact that that substance abuse is woven through most of these violence issues. I don't think that applies to the case in Sanford, but as the broad issue is addressed, that is a very big issue underlying it. Whether you legalize or decriminalize the use of substance abuse or not, you still have the addiction problem that is changing people's behavior, and we're living in a very violent age.

CONAN: Representative Baxley, thanks very much for your time today.

BAXLEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Florida State Representative Dennis Baxley, prime sponsor of the state's Stand Your Ground law. Again, you can find a link to his Fox News op-ed at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, we'll continue the conversation about the Trayvon Martin shooting, and ask how it's changed the way we talk about race? Join us for that tomorrow in this hour. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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