"A person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony."
Chapter 776.012, Florida Statutes
Should law-abiding citizens have a duty to retreat when unlawfully attacked?
It's a simple question. In 2005, the Florida Legislature answered with a resounding "no" when "stand your ground" became law. Former Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith even co-sponsored "stand your ground."
Following the George Zimmerman verdict, some say we should ask the question again. So we will. House Speaker Will Weatherford has directed the Criminal Justice Subcommittee to examine the fairness, necessity and application of "stand your ground." I am honored to have been asked to chair the review.
As we begin this process, it's important to remember why "stand your ground" became law. When "stand your ground" was enacted, victims were required to run rather than stand their ground when attacked by a criminal using deadly force. And it wasn't working. Murders were on the rise. For the five years preceding "stand your ground", the murder rate in Florida rose faster than the murder rates in California and Michigan — combined. Since "stand your ground," the murder rate in Florida has fallen dramatically.
Without "stand your ground," attackers may even sue their victims if the victims respond with force rather than retreat.
Maybe this explains why the Florida Sheriffs Association voted to oppose any changes to "stand your ground." Sheriffs understand that our laws should favor victims, not attackers. Sheriffs understand that we haven't made violence less frequent by accident — and we won't keep crime down by giving advantages to criminals.
Consider an elderly woman in a dimly lit parking lot or a college girl walking to her dorm at night. If either were attacked, her legal duty would be to turn her back and attempt retreat, probably to be overcome and raped or killed. During attacks, victims were required to evaluate whether they had "a clear line of retreat" during split-second, terrifying moments.
Perhaps it is easy for some prosecutors, judges and even juries to second-guess the life-or-death decision a victim must make to use deadly force during an assault. The Legislature passed "stand your ground" because, in close calls, we wanted our justice system to favor victims, not attackers.
"Stand your ground" simply says, if you have a right to be somewhere and if you're not breaking the law, you may defend yourself to prevent imminent death or bodily harm. You have no right to provoke or pursue, but you similarly aren't required to choose "flight" over "fight."
As a lawyer, I understand that if one person has a duty, then another has a corresponding right. In other words, a crime victim should not owe a duty to a criminal aggressor under Florida law. Neither should a criminal aggressor have a right to expect retreat from a victim.
Has "stand your ground" been misapplied or misunderstood by an occasional prosecutor or judge? Like most criminal statutes, of course it has. After all, our judicial system is designed to tilt every advantage to the accused. It's not perfect, but it is the fairest system of law and order in human history.
As the Criminal Justice Subcommittee moves to ensure the public fully understands the history and reason behind Florida's "stand your ground" law, we must be careful not to subvert open and purposeful discussion with self-serving appeals intended to hurt and divide us. "Stand your ground" was not a partisan issue in 2005. Every Democratic senator voted for "stand your ground." Every member of the Senate Black Caucus voted for "stand your ground." Let's not turn something as important as self-defense into a partisan issue today.
I'm glad that in Florida we don't change our laws to pacify a minority of protesters and pundits. I'm glad that the voices of Floridians, who favor "stand your ground" by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, matter most. I'm glad that political "compromise" is unlikely to compromise the safety of your family.
I look forward to a review of the "stand your ground" law. We will analyze why this law is necessary, who it protects and, if it were repealed, whose side the Legislature would be taking in that dimly lit parking lot or that darkened college dormitory.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Fort Walton Beach, is chairman of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee in the Florida House of Representatives.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun