Above and beyond the outrageous circumstances connected with the killing of Trayvon Martin, there is something awfully creepy about the “stand your ground laws” being pushed by the NRA (National Rifle Association) and its right-wing allies. Under our system of law, people are supposed to be accountable for their actions. When possible crimes are committed, there are police forces to investigate, prosecutors and defense attorneys to litigate, judges and juries to decide, and corrections institutions to administer. But now we see that there is a new class of individuals who can circumvent all that legal red tape: Those who kill and claim they did so in self-defense.
A new “justifiable” form of preemptive force is being codified before our eyes. If you think you are threatened, then homocide is justified anywhere, any time. An individual with no training and often no background check for the purchase of his/her weapon is now allowed to make an incontestable judgment call about whether to take another person’s life. Compare such a license to kill with the obligations of our community police officers, who are rigorously trained in handling confrontational situations. As former Miami police chief John F. Timoney points out, a police officer “is held to account for every single bullet he or she discharges.” Why, he asks, should an untrained private individual be given more rights in the use of deadly force?
The most controversial aspect of these new laws isn’t that they make it difficult to win a conviction against users of deadly force by making the prosecution bear the burden of proof. In virtually all states, the prosecution has traditionally had to shoulder that burden in self-defense cases. No, what is truly nutty about them is that they stipulate that those who pull the trigger and then claim self-defense are effectively immunized from judicial review in the first place. Section 776.032 of the Florida Statutes holds that the person who uses such force is “immune from criminal prosecution” and cannot be arrested without “probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.”
Essentially, the statute is pure Catch-22. The highly relevant matter of whether a killing is in fact an instance of self-defense is made virtually impossible to determine, since a determination of probable cause generally comes after an arrest, when the user of force would be subject to interrogation. Likewise, a determination of guilt or innocence comes after a trial, when an impartial jury would be able to weigh the facts. Since both arrest and trial are ruled out on the assumption that the defendant is innocent based on his own word, the entire justice process is circumvented. Justice begins and ends when the trigger is pulled. Instead of being grounded on evidence, justice is grounded on self-evidence.
In confrontational situations, the armed individual can thus count on absolute judicial protection, while the unarmed person must settle for its total absence. The latter’s life or death is entirely contingent on the discretion, judgment, and honesty of the legally invulnerable weapon holder. It is hard to recall an instance where legal protections are so unequal or where the rights of individuals are based so explicitly on the amount of raw physical power they wield. If the 14th Amendment, which guarantees “the equal protection of the laws” for all persons, means anything, it should mean an end to such caricatures of law.