Back in 2005, when the state of Florida’s now-infamous “Stand Your Ground” legislation had just been approved by the Sunshine State’s Republican legislature, then-Gov. Jeb Bush praised the new measure as “common sense” before signing it into law.
Bush said the following at the 2005 ceremony celebrating “Stand Your Ground”:
“It’s common sense to allow people to defend themselves. When you’re in a position where you’re being threatened to have to retreat and put yourself in a very precarious position defies common sense.”
Seven years later, just how much “sense” the law makes is up for vigorous debate in the wake of the most public and controversial utilization of what has been a divisive and questionable provision since its inception last decade.
The death of unarmed 17-year old African American youth Trayvon Martin at the hands of a white gunman in suburban Orlando, Florida last month has become a story with a national reach and has ripped off unhealed wounds on a wide range of issues, from race relations to gun laws. But the single greatest flashpoint in this ongoing drama remains the freedom of George Zimmerman, the “neighborhood watch” member who pulled the trigger on Trayvon, in what he claimed was self defense.
Though a child is dead and the motives for what caused that death are murky at best, Zimmerman still eludes arrest thanks to “Stand Your Ground,” perhaps the most controversial and convoluted law in a state known for wild, highly partisan politics.
It’s been almost two decades since the political revolution that changed the South from Democratic blue to Republican red also brought about a seismic shift in Florida’s voting sensibilities, with the GOP eventually taking control of the governor’s mansion as well as nearly unassailable majorities in the state House and Senate. With conservative Democrats still asserting influence in Tallahassee, conservative causes and special interests groups grew accustomed to winning virtually uncontested victories on a host of issues, from social hot buttons to economic policy.
The strength of the National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm among Florida lawmakers is legendary, and that status has created a state with some of the most lax gun regulations in the entire country. It’s easier to purchase and use a gun than itis to get health care in the state, and the NRA wants to keep it that way.
The centerpiece of the NRA’s mission in Florida — and nationwide, eventually — has been “Stand Your Ground.” Working closely with Republican lawmakers in the legislature and highly popular GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, the unprecedented legislation was passed and signed back in 2005, leading to a sustained backlash by gun control advocates and anti-violence activists, and generally giving the state a black eye for ushering in what some called a “wild west” attitude towards vigilante justice.
The official statute, Florida law 776.013, is a jumble of legal language and various exemptions dictating the “justifiable use of force” for state residents. The official language is filled with vague assertions and open-ended loopholes, flaws that have tragically become so familiar in recent weeks.
Legal experts immediately raised doubts about the propriety and necessity of the “Stand Your Ground” law, calling it “extreme” and noting the large “room for error” in deciphering when and where state residents would be given the right to kill with virtual impunity.
No incident in the law’s history has coalesced opposition and concern over its implications and consequences as much as the Trayvion Martin case. “Stand Your Ground” was the hallmark of Jeb Bush’s time as a relatively popular conservative known for his gun-friendly political agenda. Bush was proud of the law at the time. Now, dogged by the controversy and seeking to protect his own future as a superstar with the Republican Party’s political establishment, Bush is backi ng away from his old accomplishment.
Speaking in Texas, Bush questioned whether “Stand Your Ground” would apply in the Trayvon Martin case and said that it does not give protection for someone to “chase after somebody.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday that the “stand your ground” self-defense law he signed while in office should not apply to the case of a teenager who was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in his home state.
“This law does not apply to this particular circumstance,” Bush said after an education panel discussion at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back.”
Bush questioned the decisions of local law enforcement to invoke the law as justification not to arrest or investigate George Zimmerman. But the former governor and current high-profile backer of GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney also reaffirmed his strong support for “Stand Your Ground.”
Bush said Friday that he wondered why the investigation has taken so long to reach a conclusion. He said it took several weeks of outrage and media attention for local officials to step up their efforts.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. Bush added that he didn’t want a rush to judgment, but that officials should be mindful that “there are a lot of people who are very concerned about this.”
“You’ve got to let the judicial process work,” he said. “Hopefully it’s done at a pace that is respectful for people hurting.”
Bush also said that he still liked the law. “Applied properly, I support the law,” he said.
While the Trayvon Martin tragedy has thrust the law into the state and national spotlight like nothing else, “Stand Your Ground” has been under fire and facing criticism locally ever since Jeb Bush’s pen hit paper back in 2005.
The very idea of a government mandate giving vague and uncertain license to individuals to shoot and kill when they feel “threatened” is troubling to many, including legal experts.
“Self-defense is now used more widely than it was under the old law,” said William Eddins, Pensacola’s state attorney and president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. “It is a very broad law in terms of the availability of the defendant to try to take advantage of this law. It has created more litigation for the state in cases involving violence and in murder cases, in particular.”
The state attorney in Tallahassee, Willie Meggs, who fought the law when it was proposed, said: “The consequences of the law have been devastating around the state. It’s almost insane what we are having to deal with.”
It is increasingly used by gang members fighting gang members, drug dealers battling drug dealers and people involved in road rage encounters. Confrontations at a bar are also common: someone looks at someone the wrong way or bothers someone’s girlfriend.
To gain attention and clout at the state level, the NRA has ponied up money and offers endorsements to legislators from both parties. The NRA and the NRA Political Victory Fund, its political action committee, have donated about $2.6 million to state-level political campaigns, committees and individual politicians since 2003, according to records compiled by the National Institute on Money and State Politics.
And ambitious politicians take note that the NRA is heavily invested and involved in congressional races.