In the uproar over the killing of Trayvon Martin, two guilty parties have been identified: George Zimmerman and Florida's "stand your ground" law. I have no attachment to Zimmerman. But having defended the law when it was passed in 2005, I think it has been the victim of a lightly informed rush to judgment.
The law says if you reasonably fear someone is about to kill or seriously injure you in a public place, you don't have to try to escape and hope he lets you. If you're legally armed, you can use your weapon to save your life, without undue fear of a long prison sentence. This is a boon to smaller, weaker people threatened by larger, stronger, more violent ones.
As David Kopel of the Independence Institute said then, "If a gang tries to mug you while you are walking down a dark street, and you draw a gun and shoot one of the gangsters, a prosecutor cannot argue that you should have run away."
It may be true that this defense has been employed by gang members, drug dealers and road ragers. But that doesn't tell us much. These same people often claim their constitutional rights were violated -- which is not an indictment of the Constitution. If a criminal kills someone, his lawyer is bound to seize any possible defense. Without some credible basis, though, it's not likely to work.
The law can be important to people who were truly in danger. A New York Times story on its alleged flaws said some applications "have left prosecutors scratching their heads." But it also noted that "it has been used judiciously and fairly in many cases, where it was clearly self-defense."
Under the old law, those people who acted only to avoid being killed or hurt might have gone to jail -- since a prosecutor could always say, "You should have run away." Under the new law, that's less likely to happen.
The law wasn't intended to license vigilantism, as Zimmerman may have practiced, or to excuse thugs engaged in public gunfights. If it's been read in such a way as to facilitate criminal behavior, it ought to be revised or repealed.
That's why I'm all for Gov. Rick Scott's decision to set up a task force to reassess it. The committee should fully air all the ill effects of the "stand your ground" law -- and the benefits.