Yesterday jury selection began in the murder trial of Michael Dunn who shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Witnesses say Dunn became enraged at Davis for playing music too loudly and provoked a confrontation that resulted in Dunn shooting and killing the unarmed teenager.
Dunn will likely base his defense on Florida’s stand your ground law—better described as a “shoot first” law—that allows someone to use deadly force outside the home if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. Florida’s law, as well as similar laws in several other states, does not require that the person using force retreat to a place of safety, if possible, before using force.
Eight months before Jordan Davis was killed, George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager walking to his father’s girlfriend’s house. By now, most of us know the story. Although Florida’s shoot first law was not incorporated into George Zimmerman’s defense, the court had instructed the jury on Florida’s controversial law and one of the jurors subsequently stated that the jury had found the law applicable to Zimmerman.
Again, a few weeks ago, yet another person behaving lawfully in public was shot and killed. Chad Oulson, who was texting his 3-year-old daughter’s caretaker during movie previews, angered Curtis Reeves, an armed, retired police officer. Reeves began to argue with Oulson. A confrontation ensued and Reeves shot and killed Oulson. Reeves is expected to also claim self-defense using Florida’s shoot first law.
A 17-year-old playing music in a car. A 16-year-old walking to see his father. A father texting the babysitter during movie previews. These are only a fraction of the victims. These tragic events also demonstrate how shoot first laws continue to threaten public safety by encouraging people to take the law into their own hands and act as armed vigilantes, often with deadly consequences. The strongest of these laws also have a profound impact on the criminal and civil justice systems, tying the hands of law enforcement and depriving victims of remedies by providing blanket immunity from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits to individuals who claim they were acting in self-defense.
Many states have had enough of this bloodshed and lawmakers have introduced legislation to repeal or limit the use of shoot first laws. Most notably, Alabama has introduced the “Trayvon Martin exception” as an amendment to its current shoot first law. The new legislation aims to protect innocent victims like Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Chad Oulson. The bill would prohibit use of the self-defense claim if a shooter pursued the victim who was behaving lawfully in a public place and the pursuit resulted in a deadly confrontation.
Arizona lawmakers have introduced two similar bills that would protect victims by stating that if an aggressor leaves a place of safety and actively pursues another who is engaged in a lawful activity, the aggressor cannot rely on the shoot first law to defend his or her use of deadly force in a resulting confrontation. The law also specifically bars the use of the shoot first defense if law enforcement instructs the aggressor to retreat to a place of safety and the aggressor continues the pursuit. Georgia, too, has introduced a bill to prevent a person from relying on the state’s shoot first law if he or she provokes the use of force against him or herself.
The good news is that Alabama, Arizona and Georgia are not the only states taking this step. In an effort to dissuade vigilantism and protect innocent life, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have introduced legislation to weaken or repeal shoot first laws. If successful, these changes will undoubtedly help reduce the unnecessary gun violence that has arisen in light of these dangerous laws.
For more, read some of the recent gun violence prevention success stories.