Florida’s Gun Law Morass

The court wisely upheld the free-speech rights of physicians. Safety-minded Floridians must hope similar judicial wisdom applies eventually to the state’s far less laughable Stand Your Ground law.

That gravely loosened self-defense statute was invoked in the shooting death in February of an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman initially walked free, but after a public furor he was charged with second-degree murder — a demonstration of the law’s dangerous vagaries, which have left courts, prosecutors and police fumbling with contradictory interpretations that abuse justice, more than ensure it.

In the boom in self-defense claims caused by the 7-year-old law, some killers in drug shootouts, gang wars and street brawls have walked free while comparable crimes end with long prison sentences in neighboring local jurisdictions, according to a detailed study of nearly 200 cases by The Tampa Bay Times.

Almost 7 in 10 people who invoked the overreaching law have not been charged, the study found. In 135 cases, the slain victim was unarmed; in 157 killings, the accused used a gun or a knife. In nearly a third of the cases, reporters found self-defense claimants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued the victim — and still went free under local authorities’ conflicted interpretations of the law. It has become an excuse for mayhem, used at least six times in drug deals gone lethal, 23 times in barroom fights, 12 times in neighborhood disputes and 30 times in arguments turned violent.

The racial aspects of the law are far from fully investigated, but the study found 73 percent of those who killed a black person successfully claimed immunity compared with 59 percent of those who killed someone white. The law, which has been copied in more than a score of states, scrapped the traditional duty to retreat from a threat when possible and instead allowed a license to kill if a citizen “reasonably believed” he was in danger of grave bodily harm. Slain victims like Trayvon Martin, of course, have no chance to tell their side of the story.

The Florida law reached the level of Wild West farce when one judge freed two gang members, ruling he had to grant immunity because it could not be proved that they fired first — rather than in claimed self-defense — when they sprayed 25 rounds outside an apartment complex. No wonder defense lawyers quickly exploited the law, even claiming immunity in minor incidents, as in cases in which a man shot a bear, a protected species, and another beat a dog. The law is a dangerous disaster that should be repealed if state politicians could ever muster courage to retreat from the macho fantasies of the gun lobby.