Room for Debate

Focus Must Be Narrower

Adam Winkler

Adam Winkler is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law and the author of "Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America." He is on Twitter.

Updated January 4, 2013, 1:16 PM

Stand Your Ground laws, which eliminate the longstanding legal requirement that a person threatened outside of his or her own home retreat rather than use force, are the latest manifestation of the political strength of the gun rights movement. First adopted in Florida in 2005, Stand Your Ground laws, drafted and promoted by the National Rifle Association, have since been enacted in some form in more than 20 states. The Trayvon Martin shooting suggests that, in the rush to adopt these laws, lawmakers and gun advocates have gone too far in authorizing the use of deadly force.

Stand Your Ground laws should only allow what their name suggests; they should not encourage vigilantism.

Although the facts of Trayvon Martin’s death remain uncertain, we know that George Zimmerman, who was active in the local neighborhood crime watch, suspected Martin was a criminal and shot him on a Florida street. Despite being instructed by police to stay away, Zimmerman confronted Martin. The situation escalated quickly into violence. The police have yet to arrest Zimmerman, apparently because Florida’s Stand Your Ground law entitled Zimmerman to use deadly force.

Florida legislators, however, insist the Stand Your Ground law does not provide a defense for people like Zimmerman, who pursue and confront someone. Florida Senator Durrell Peadon, who sponsored the law, said that Zimmerman “has no protection under my law.” According to state Representative Dennis Baxley, “There’s nothing in this statute that authorizes you to pursue and confront people.” The law, Baxley notes, was designed only “to prevent you from being attacked by other people.”

The problem is that nothing in Peadon and Baxley’s law says this. It provides that any person may use deadly force when “he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another.” So long as someone reasonably thinks he or someone else is in danger, he can shoot to kill, regardless of whether the shooter is the one who initiated the hostile confrontation.

Indeed, given the law’s authorization of the use of deadly force to protect other people and, as the law also provides, “to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony,” Florida’s law unambiguously authorizes people to pursue and confront others. Whatever the merits of standing your ground when personally threatened, Florida’s law goes much further and encourages vigilantism. It tells people, who today are increasingly likely to be carrying concealed weapons, that they can pretend to be police officers and use their guns to protect and serve the broader public.

Stand Your Ground laws should only allow what their name suggests: permit people who are threatened to stand their own ground and protect themselves. They should not give people the right to use force to defend someone else’s ground. Under no circumstances should people be able to confront others in a hostile manner, end up using deadly force, and escape punishment.

Join Room for Debate on Facebook and follow updates on

Topics: Law, criminal justice, guns

Killing, With the Law on Your Side

Do Stand Your Ground laws provide too much criminal immunity when innocent people are shot by someone who feels threatened? Read More »