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Tom Harbold: Support Stand Your Ground laws

Various incarnations of the Stand Your Ground law are in force in 24 states, not including Maryland. These laws have come under fire - no pun intended - following a highly publicized incident in Florida, a state which does have a Stand Your Ground law, in which self-proclaimed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

Zimmerman claims that Martin attacked him and he felt that his life was in danger.

Martin's family, understandably, claims that this is not so, that this was a case of homicide.

More recently, a Texas man has attempted to use that state's version of Stand Your Ground to justify shooting a neighbor for playing music too loudly. He has been convicted, rightly in my opinion, of murder.

But what are Stand Your Ground laws, anyway? Specifics differ from state to state, but the basic principle is an extension of the well-known "Castle Doctrine."

This legal doctrine, named for the English legal maxim that a man's home is his castle, states that a person has the right to defend his or her home from intrusion by whatever means necessary, up to and including lethal force.

Many people, myself included, think this is so self-evident that there shouldn't need to be a special law about it, but our society being what it is, many states - including Maryland - do not specifically recognize the right to defend one's home against attack using lethal force.

In these states, there is a legally defined "duty to retreat" before an aggressor, and only if the attack is then pressed can one be considered justified in using deadly force to defend oneself, one's family or one's property.

According to the Castle Doctrine, there is not a legal obligation to retreat before using force to defend one's home. The Stand Your Ground laws simply take that one step further and state that there is no legal duty to retreat before defending oneself, provided that one is in a location where one has the legal right to be.

Some states that have such laws include specific exceptions or otherwise define it more precisely, but the basic principle is if you are somewhere you have the legal right to be, and are attacked, you have the legal right to defend yourself and do not have the legal obligation to retreat before invoking that right.

Once again, this seems to be self-evidently the case, but there are only 24 states where a version of this principle is enshrined in law. Maryland, as noted, is not among them.

The problem, of course, is cases where the situation is not clear-cut.

What constitutes an attack? And of course, feeling that one's life is threatened is a subjective judgment. If an attacker is swinging a knife at you, or pulls a gun and starts firing at you, most people would consider that a legitimate case of one's life being in danger.

If one gets in a fight, and starts losing - which may be what happened in the Trayvon Martin case - perhaps not so much. But that, I would hold, is for the legal process to decide, if necessary.

The basic principles that one's home is one's castle, and that one has a legal right to defend oneself anywhere one has the legal right to be, strike me as legitimate principles, and ones worthy of support.

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