Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a tough new law last week that conservatives are calling a major victory for individual liberty. Florida makes it crystal clear that anyone can use deadly force when needed as long as in legitimate self-defense. The change flips things around to shift the burden of proving wrongdoing onto the prosecutor instead of the victim.
A spokesman for the National Rifle Association cheers the law, saying it “restores the presumption of innocence in self-defense cases by putting the burden of proof back on the state where it belongs.”
Up until now, a person had to justify using force in self-defense. Florida’s new law makes the state bring evidence to a pretrial hearing that shows “beyond a reasonable doubt” the specific use of force was not justified. This will keep charges from being filed against intended victims forced to take drastic action just to save themselves from impending harm.
Liberals complain that gun owners will be encouraged to “shoot first.” Those who support the law agree with that and point out how much of a good thing it is for making criminals think twice. For every would-be criminal shot, the murder of an honest citizen was prevented.
Self-defense laws generally fall into three categories, Stand your ground, castle doctrine, and duty to retreat. At the liberal end of the spectrum, some states have laws which require retreat from any threat. If you can run, you are expected to. You are only allowed to use deadly force if you are totally cornered and facing extreme injury or death.
The castle doctrine is the middle ground solution. It allows the use of deadly force to defend yourself only on “real property” which would include a home and its yard, a private office, and in some cases, your car.
Stand your ground laws are the ones that are most controversial. Florida was the first state to pass such a law. The 2005 version removed the requirement to retreat as long as there is “reasonable belief” that use of force will “prevent death or great bodily harm.”
The Trayvon Martin case is the first one most people think of when stand your ground laws are mentioned. Even though the judge in the case issued jury instructions concerning stand your ground provisions, George Zimmerman had waived his right to a defense under that doctrine and based his case entirely on self-defense.
Under “stand your ground” laws, you can’t just shoot someone who makes you nervous. Saying you were afraid for your life or you saw a weapon does not get the job done. You have to be able to give specific reasons that would make any reasonable person feel they were in serious danger under the same circumstances. The use of force also has to be “proportional.” If someone is screaming and threatening you, waving their arms around and getting into your face, you can’t just shoot them, no matter how scared you are. If you get into a bar fight as a willing participant and find yourself getting the worst of it, you can’t shoot.
The recent changes to laws are not new ideas. A 1921 case heard by the Supreme Court, Brown v. United States, ruled that there is “no duty to retreat” in a legitimate self-defense case. “If a man reasonably believes that he is in immediate danger of death or grievous bodily harm from his assailant he may stand his ground and that if he kills him he has not exceed[ed] the bounds of lawful self-defense.”
According to famous Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife. Therefore, in this Court, at least, it is not a condition of immunity that one in that situation should pause to consider whether a reasonable man might not think it possible to fly with safety or to disable his assailant rather than to kill him.”
In other words, if someone is coming at you with a knife you don’t need to stop and think what a “reasonable person” would do, just do what you need and defend yourself.
Getting rid of the requirement to flee helps neutralize situations where twelve jurors sitting calmly in a jury room have to decide what your state of mind was in a dangerous situation. That adds an unacceptable burden to a claim of self-defense.
As pointed out by AWR Hawkins, “If you think about it, what makes more sense than recognizing a citizen’s right to act in self-defense the very instant they come under attack? After all, criminals carry out attacks quickly and unexpectedly to benefit themselves, so the second a victim realizes an attack is underway may be the only second he or she has to do something about it.”