Stand Your Ground – Why SYG’s Reasonable Belief Standard is Beyond Dangerous
Stand Your Ground, as codified in Florida and elsewhere, is entirely based on whether the person defending himself or herself held an instance of a “reasonable belief” that harm could occur. This piece asks, what is reasonable? And how can we determine what a reasonable belief is anymore?
When Florida Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson issued the jury instructions in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, she read:
If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
Here is the actual jury instruction read to Florida juries BEFORE the legislature’s enactment of Stand Your Ground:
The defendant cannot justify the use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm unless he used every reasonable means within his power and consistent with his own safety to avoid the danger before resorting to that force. The fact that the defendant was wrongfully attacked cannot justify his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating he could have avoided the need to use that force.
See the difference? Juries used to judge a person’s actions and means to determine reasonableness. Now they must determine reasonable beliefs. I submit that is impossible. An expressed belief is very difficult to impeach. It forces juries to side with those who legally own guns as long as they say they were afraid.
History of Gun Ownership
Ownership of guns is a polarizing issue in our society. Some claim historical entitlement. They claim that the Second Amendment protects their rights to be armed. The Second Amendment speaks of a “well regulated militia”- “well regulated.” Yet, many of those who want to extend the Second Amendment fight regulation. Marion Hammer and the NRA want deregulation. They want to sell to teenagers, teachers and even the preacher.
It’s a myth that gun ownership was common during the Revolutionary War. Probate records reveal a lack of domestic gun manufacturers and a minimal number of foreign gun producers exporting guns to the US. Further, these “militias” that were the focus of this, now more powerful, Amendment were so commonly mocked that seven states passed laws making it a felony to make fun of them and three states specifically outlawed joking about the militia’s poor skills at target shooting. It took extensive training to learn how to accurately fire these large awkward muskets and took time to begin the killing process. The forefathers were not able to contemplate the advancements in weaponry that now exists. Some would argue they were not even able to contemplate racial and gender equality. Even Thomas Jefferson believed every generation should modify the Constitution as society advances. But as the only Amendment directly linked to articles of million-dollar commerce and fear, it remains the Nation’s most powerful.
Stand Your Ground Took it to a New Level
Enter Marion Hammer, the NRA and Stand Your Ground. Even before it was enacted, some were already so empowered by guns or consumed by fear, filled with hate or scared by any pessimistic thought that “shoot first” was exactly what they wanted to hear. Under the new Stand Your Ground laws, they could only be judged by their ability to justify their own irrational beliefs. And the dead tended not to disagree.
What is Reasonable?
Despite the abuse of a legally owned firearm by a man (who was a gun collector, trained to respect and use guns since the third grade according to his former lawyer) who was offended by loud music and decided to fire 9 or 10 shots at a gas station into a car of teenagers, neither Ron Davis, nor I want to repeal the Second Amendment. Despite the senseless murder of 12 little girls and 8 little boys by a young man (whose wealthy mother purportedly taught him a respect of guns and had legally acquired the guns out of fear for self protection), neither Lucia McBath, nor I want to tell people they do not have the right to keep and bear arms. Despite a man in Birmingham, Alabama initiating a gun battle in a hospital cardiology ward, wounding two Hospital workers and an officer because he felt the care of his wife was offensive, we still recognize these as exceptions to the norm.
Or are they? We might just live in a new (unreasonable) normal.
I am going to show some examples of the general degradation of our sensitivity and by no means am I saying that causes people to kill people. I am saying the loss of sensitivity has changed us as a society. No one can deny that. We are a long way from Leave it to Beaver, from even Atari games, from it taking 3-4 days to develop photos to determine whether we had something of interest. Even Nickelodeon’s “Kid’s Choice Awards” go to movies like “the Hunger Games,” where one boy and one girl aged 12–18 are selected by lottery to compete in a televised battle to the death or shows about “2 Broke Girls” who constantly joke about STD’s, reckless sex and the like or. Is that bad? Maybe not. But it is certainly different than how the network ran things when I grew up watching it.
Gone is Pac-Man, too. Estimates say 40 million people per month play Call of Duty, a video game that teaches how to kill and give such specific knowledge that it provides far more advanced training than the militias of yore ever received. One of Call of Duty’s military consultants, Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Hank Keirsey said, “When I played the original Call of Duty, after being a soldier, I screwed up a couple things. I know to check corners and when someone jumps out I was kicking myself. It was sufficient and realistic enough that it gave me the damn willies. I was waking up in the middle of the night thinking I could do much better.” He also talked about playing against anonymous 12-year-olds online, saying, “Then you’re pissed off in multiplayer (mode) when some 12-year-old is kicking your ass. You think: ‘I do this for a living you little bastard.’ I’m going to crawl down your basement hatch and I’ll find you, you little … ”
That’s where we have come. Former military are doing press saying 12-year-olds are better at tactical operations than a Lieutenant Colonel, an officer with over 20 years of military training. Even if it is to sell games, it is ridiculous. The latest edition, Modern Warfare, is based on the concept of the start of “World War 3.” The violence is specific and staggering. Lieutenant Colonel Keirsey bragged in a recent interview that the developers are precise in their research making sure everything is real, even the feel and precision. He mistakenly called the users “kids,” before correcting himself to say, “young men,” showing that the manufacturer knows who is actually playing these games. He joking encouraged users to do push-ups to concurrently physically train for when the “zombie apocalypse” becomes real and they have to apply those skills. Shameful.
And then let’s look at television. Dexter is a hit show in which the hero is a serial killer who kills serial killers by saran wrapping them down to a table before violently stabbing them in the chest, letting blood ooze on the covered floor. It has been nominated for eleven Primetime Emmy Awards (two wins), seven Golden Globe Awards (two wins), seven Screen Actors Guild Awards (one win), twelve Satellite Awards (seven wins), thirteen Saturn Awards (five wins), two PGA Awards, two TCA Awards (one win), five WGA Awards, a Peabody Award, and it was selected twice by the American Film Institute as one of the top ten best television programs of the year. I, frankly, love it. I also recognize that it is a very guilty pleasure.
An episode of the FX show, Sons of Anarchy, recently drew 4.67 million viewers. Rarely an episode passed without at least one person getting shot in the head. Others were burnt to death and another character, in an interrogation room in the prison, had his head slammed down on a table, his teeth slicing into and severing his outstretched tongue, severing it causing him to spit it out. We don’t even wince. Gone are the days when blood was only shown in horror movies. Studies have shown by the time the average U.S. child starts elementary school, he or she will have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on TV. Trouble is even more on the horizon.
Facebook and Twitter have led the charge to depersonalization of relationships and the possibility of instant notoriety in 140 characters or less. If you say something mean enough or do something stupid enough, you can find 15 minutes of fame. People exploit their children daily. Or hash out their unhealthy relationships with the other parent of their child in callous, hateful fashion, but think these things will never happen to them. That their kids won’t turn out this way. Yet, 14-year-old girls are filming themselves jumping other girls and giving them brain damage- for fun. It’s the kids of neglectful parents I worry about the most. They are sponges of bitterness.
The craving to have more “followers,” or virtual friends that real ones has lead to increasingly desperate behavior. I’d venture to say that the instant gratification and lowered attention spans that have resulted from social media and the invent of text messaging has psychologically changed our nation more than any other event in this country’s history. We are more selfish, more hateful, more inclined to anonymously spew mean things than ever before because the bigots have a forum like never before.
So, I don’t think any of us are reasonable beings anymore. We’ve been rewired in just 5-6 years. And Pandora’s box is wide open. It is only going to get worse. We are all watching and becoming more desensitized everyday- now as a man has turned a gun on his own mother and 20 children. You cannot un-hear that. So, what do we do? We have to protect ourselves from ourselves or America will be that country we used to look at as uncivilized- government in disarray and a populous divided, guns on the street, people spewing hate and fearful of each other. Or are we already there?
Trained to be Unreasonable
I have attended and obtained my concealed weapons permit. In the 4-hour mandatory class, the two “teachers” spent most of their time on a sales pitch, pulling out 6-8 guns hidden on their person and detailing the merits of each. They spent ample time discussing Stand Your Ground and other laws, preparing us for possible run-ins with the law and also pointing out they keep a law book they sell on the counter in their cars and homes just in case you need “quick help.” They told us the places in town where guns were not allowed and to “boycott” them. Most offensively, they taught the grey area of the law. They explained it well. I left that class knowing many there had just shot one bullet- the first and only bullet they might have shot in their lives and now they were armed with fear and a non-lawyer’s rendition on the law. How dangerous is that? And this person gets to walk around in public around my child with a gun? Basically, they fueled acceptance of killing. They took a 100 or so people and the fear and concern they had justifying them to get a concealed weapons permit and sought to empower them to not only defend themselves, but to arm themselves with enough “reason” to get away with it. Oh, my God- there are thousands (or more) of people per week undergoing this training in America.
So, what is Reasonable?
Reasonable is everything now. It is all of us. Even those who choose to arm up and “shoot first.” They are legally reasonable. Even those who shoot and kill over an argument over placement of garbage? Even those who bring a .38 to the door and kill someone on their doorstep who had no criminal designs. Reasonable could be someone at a red light who jumps out of a car in a rage of anger and gets into a shoot-out in the street. Reasonable is unreasonable. Unreasonable is reasonable under Stand Your Ground.
The Stand Your Ground Serial Killer Possible?
I posed that question for the first time on national TV here. But what if -and this is just a hypothetical- George Zimmerman is as much of a “wanted man” as his own family and legal counsel claim. And what if -and this is still just a hypothetical- someone he considers menacing (a black child with candy, soft drink and a possible bad attitude) comes at him in his car or in a store- fist in the air, angry with him, seeking to do him harm- or at least justifiably so in Zimmerman’s mind. Can he shoot and claim self defense again? And again? And again? Where is the line of defense of self and reason? Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world where the Stand Your Ground killer is not only legal, but he (or she) is festering among us. ‘Dexter’ could run four more seasons if they dare approach the laws of lethal force and Stand Your Ground in Florida alone.
I am scared. So, I guess the NRA and Marion Hammer wanted us all to arm up because the person coming up your sidewalk may want to kill you. Shoot first. He looks like he is “packing.” Or is that just the mailman? Don’t ask questions. Stand Your Ground does not require reasonable acts just a reasonable belief. BANG!