In the past year, 15 states have enacted laws that expand the right of self-defense, allowing crime victims to use deadly force in situations that might formerly have subjected them to prosecution for murder.
Supporters call them "stand your ground" laws. Opponents call them "shoot first" laws.
Thanks to this sort of law, a prostitute in Port Richey, Fla., who killed her 72-year-old client with his own gun rather than flee, was not charged last month. Similarly, the police in Clearwater, Fla., did not arrest a man who shot a neighbor in early June after a shouting match over putting out garbage, though the authorities say they are still reviewing the evidence.
The first of the new laws took effect in Florida in October, and cases under it are now reaching prosecutors and juries there. The other laws, mostly in Southern and Midwestern states, were enacted this year, according to the National Rifle Association, which has promoted them enthusiastically.
Florida does not keep comprehensive records on the impact of its new law, but prosecutors and defense lawyers there agree that fewer people who claim self-defense are being charged or convicted.
The Florida law, which served as a model for the others, gives people the right to use deadly force against intruders entering their homes. They no longer need to prove that they feared for their safety, only that the person they killed intruded unlawfully and forcefully. The law also extends this principle to vehicles.
In addition, the law does away with an earlier requirement that a person attacked in a public place must retreat if possible. Now, that same person, in the law's words, "has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force." The law also forbids the arrest, detention or prosecution of the people covered by the law, and it prohibits civil suits against them.
The central innovation in the Florida law, said Anthony J. Sebok, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, is not its elimination of the duty to retreat, which has been eroding nationally through judicial decisions, but in expanding the right to shoot intruders who pose no threat to the occupant's safety.
"In effect," Sebok said, "the law allows citizens to kill other citizens in defense of property."
This month, a West Palm Beach, Fla., jury will hear the retrial of a murder case that illustrates the dividing line between the old law and the new one. In November 2004, before the law was enacted, a cabdriver in West Palm Beach killed a drunken passenger in an altercation after dropping him off.
The first jury deadlocked in favor of convicting the driver, Robert Lee Smiley Jr., said Henry Munnilal, the jury foreman.
"Smiley had a lot of chances to retreat and to avoid an escalation," said Munnilal, a 62-year-old accountant. "He could have just gotten in his cab and left. The thing could have been avoided, and a man's life would have been saved."
Smiley tried to invoke the new law, which does away with the duty to retreat and would almost certainly have meant his acquittal, but an appeals court refused to apply it retroactively. He has appealed that issue to the Florida Supreme Court.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, said the Florida law sent a needed message to law-abiding citizens.
"If they make a decision to save their lives in the split second they are being attacked, the law is on their side," LaPierre said. "Good people make good decisions. That's why they're good people. If you're going to empower someone, empower the crime victim."
The NRA said it would lobby for versions of the law in eight more states in 2007.
Sarah Brady, chairwoman of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said her group would fight those efforts. "In a way," Brady said of the new laws, "it's a license to kill."
Many prosecutors oppose the laws, saying they are unnecessary at best and pernicious at worst. "They're basically giving citizens more rights to use deadly force than we give police officers, and with less review," said Paul A. Logli, president of the National District Attorneys Association.
But some legal experts doubt the laws will make a practical difference. "It's inconceivable to me that one in a hundred Floridians could tell you how the law has changed," said Gary Kleck, who teaches criminology at Florida State University.
Even before the new laws, Kleck added, claims of self-defense were often accepted. "In the South," he said, "they more or less give the benefit of the doubt to the alleged victim's account."
The case involving the prostitute, Jacqueline Galas, turned on the new law, said Michael Halkitis, division director of the state attorney's office in New Port Richey. Galas, 23, said that a longtime client, Frank Labiento, 72, threatened to kill her and then kill himself last month. A suicide note he had left and other evidence supported her contention.
The decision not to charge Galas was straightforward, Halkitis said. "It would have been a more difficult situation with the old law," he said, "much more difficult."