Florida’s strange gun laws

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case and have concluded that one reason for the verdict is Florida law.  I’ve read the jury instructions and while they were confusing, they had to follow the law which led to acquittal.

The best piece I’ve read on Florida gun laws is an OpEd by Farah Stockman in the Boston Globe.  Stockman writes about Florida gun laws generally and cites 4 currently incarcerated people as examples:  Marissa Alexander, Ronald Thompson, Orville Lee Wollard and Erik Weyant.    All but Alexander are white men, all including Alexander fired a gun to frighten and not to kill.  All are currently serving 20 year minimum sentences.

IF IT BOGGLES your mind that George Zimmerman, a 29-year-old with a gun, could be acquitted after pursuing — and killing — an unarmed 17-year-old, here’s another brain teaser: How could Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, receive a 20-year prison sentence for firing a bullet into a wall near her abusive ex-husband, even though no one was harmed?

It’s true. Florida is one of the worst places to fire a gun into the air, even as it appears to be one of the best places to actually shoot at a person.

Marissa Alexander of Florida received a 20-year prison sentence for firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-husband.

Marissa Alexander of Florida received a 20-year prison sentence for firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-husband.

She goes on to explain.

Alexander, whose ex-husband admitted that she was afraid of his abuse, is not the only one in prison for shooting at nothing.

Ronald Thompson, 62, a disabled veteran, fired two shots into the ground to protect an elderly woman from her violent 17-year-old grandson. State Attorney Angela Corey — the same prosecutor in the Zimmerman case — charged him with four counts of aggravated assault. Thompson was sentenced to 20 years in prison,  a punishment that the judge in the case called a “crime in itself.”  (He is currently awaiting a new trial.)

Orville Lee Wollard, a former auxiliary police force member, shot a bullet into the wall to scare away his daughter’s abusive boyfriend. Prosecutors offered him probation. But he wanted to be exonerated at trial. Now he’s serving 20 years.

Erik Weyant, 22, fired shots in the air to disperse a group of drunk men who accosted him in a parking lot outside a bar and blocked his car. No one was hurt. But he’s in for 20 years.

In many cases, the fact that they chose to fire a warning shot, instead of aiming to kill, was used as evidence against them at trial, said Greg Newburn of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. If you were truly in fear of your life, the logic goes, you would aim at the chest, not the wall.

Florida lawmakers, in their infinite wisdom, began to notice that a lot of people were getting severely punished simply for defending themselves. But instead of repealing the Draconian measure, they passed another one: the “stand your ground” law.

Somehow, both of the laws are not working.  George Zimmerman who killed Trayvon Martin is free, the four named above are in prison.

…And had Alexander shot and killed her abusive ex-husband, would she have had a better chance of getting immunity with a “stand your ground” defense?

“I think so,” said her attorney Michael Dowd.

So in the sick logic of Florida’s gun laws, the message is clear: If you are going to shoot, shoot to kill. You stand a better chance of walking free.

What is happening in Florida is just another reason we need to take a careful look at all of our gun laws.  Florida’s gun laws have little to do with race and as pressure mounts to help Alexander, let us not forget everyone else.

Photograph:  Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union

Neighborhood design, the foreclosure crisis and the death of Trayvon Martin

Neighborhood design?  Is she nuts?  What does that have to do with Trayvon Martin?  Isn’t his death related to race, guns and stand your ground laws?  My reaction when I saw the headline in yesterday’s Boston Globe.  But after reading Zach Youngerman’s op-ed, it all became clear.

PUBLIC OPINION about the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., shifts every time new evidence emerges, as though each of them had a fixed character that could be revealed as easily as a video recording can be enhanced. But behavior is not simply a matter of character; it is also a matter of setting. Less than 1.2 percent of the population in Sanford walks to work, and the subdivision where the killing took place is designed for driving, so something as human as walking is odd behavior. Suspicious even.

“It’s raining, and he’s just walking around, looking about,’’ Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher during his first exchange. Martin was in front of the clubhouse at the Retreat at Twin Lakes. He may have been looking for a sidewalk.

Depending on which way Martin entered the subdivision, he would have found at the clubhouse either a rare length of sidewalk merging into a parking lot or leading away into a sort of jogging path encircling an artificial lake. If Martin chose simply to cross the street from the corner where he was, he would have been forced to transgress in the most literal sense. The 30-foot street (enough for two driving lanes and one parking lane on Mass. Ave. [in Boston or Cambridge]) doesn’t have a painted crosswalk. Probably because the other side only has private lawns and driveways.

Most of the Retreat at Twin Lakes lacks a conventional sidewalk – a public pedestrian thoroughfare parallel to vehicle traffic but protected by a curb. Together with a landscaped tree belt, parking lanes, and occasionally bike lanes, sidewalks and roads make up what is called the public right of way. Without public rights of way, we would all be constantly having to trespass on private land or pay tolls to get anywhere. This was the situation Martin faced inside and outside the gated subdivision. On his mile walk to the nearest convenience store, the sidewalk ends twice and becomes a no-man’s-land of grassy highway shoulder. If Martin were trespassing, he had no choice but to do so.

So you have a place with wide streets, few sidewalks along the street and those not connected, and a rainy night with a teenager walking and not driving.  You can see how George Zimmerman might have been thinking that Trayvon Martin was casing the neighborhood.  Youngerman goes on

After a tragedy, we try to imagine alternatives. What if we change the laws? What if we raise awareness? To those important questions I would add: What if we design places differently, places for people?

Houses with front porches rather than driveways bring residents outside even in rainy weather and put “eyes on the street,’’ as the pre-eminent urbanist Jane Jacobs described it. When houses are closer to the property line and on narrower streets, residents feel like they are more responsible for what happens outside. Zimmerman was a self-titled neighborhood watch volunteer. Design can make residents neighborhood watch volunteers naturally.

In a place meant for people with a denser residential street, maybe the man and the boy might have felt less like they were all alone. In a place meant for people with sidewalks and street lights, maybe they would have been less alone. Maybe a couple of neighbors could have stopped the altercation before it got out of hand.

Of course, some people did hear the altercation after it started and there are accounts from the 911 tapes, Trayvon’s girlfriend, and some neighbors so this was not a totally isolated incident.  But Youngerman does have a point:  a kid walking in the that community, for at matter, anyone walking in that community was unusual enough that George Zimmerman followed the walker. 

I wanted to see the location myself to confirm Youngerman’s description so I did a search for The Retreat at Twin Lakes and like a lot of Florida, there are a number of houses for sale including bank owned properties (REO’s) and some on the market as short sales.

This is one of the REO’s.  The picture is a little fuzzy since I had to enlarge it, but it does show some of the surroundings.

Property Photo

This is a better picture of the surroundings.  It appears there are sidewalks but not, as Youngerman pointed out, conventional ones parallel to the street.

The Tampa Bay Times had a story about the community on March 25 which  pointed out that there were to be 263 houses built and at the time of the story 40 were vacant and half were rented not owned.  This is what happens when the housing market bottoms out and you have a foreclosure crisis.  Whether the property is under foreclosure or not, no one can sell.  The community was not stable.  This is the kind of place where break-ins happen and they had started there. 

This picture from the Tampa Bay Times makes the place look like an apartment complex, different from the real estate sales pictures appearing to showing single family homes or Youngerman’s description.  But the sidewalks in the picture are between buildings and not near the street.

Cheryl Brown, with the family’s boxer, Sake, says she and her family are rattled by the fatal shooting inside their gated community.

So the density that Youngerman was looking for might have been there, but the layout was poor with sidewalks between building, but none parallel to the street and with people moving in and out and lots of vacancies, Retreat at Twin Lakes may have contributed to the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin that lead to Martin’s death just by its design and circumstances.  The bottom line:  Zach Youngerman is right about the impact of design if not right about all of the details.  This was a driving community, not a walking one and people did not know their neighbors.

Stand your ground: Looking beyond Trayvon Martin

The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy.  I think that is the one thing most of us can agree on.  But the facts about what happened that night are murky, in part clouded by what appears to be an unprofessional investigation, a Florida law that goes beyond the doctrine of protecting your home when it and your family are threatened, and poor judgement on the part of the chief of police in Stanford and the State’s Attorney.  So how did it come to this?

Cora Curry writing in Alter-Net says

Still, in not arresting Zimmerman, local officials have pointed to Florida’s wide definition of self-defense. In 2005, Florida became the first state to explicitly expand a person’s right to use deadly force for self-defense. Deadly force is justified if a person is gravely threatened, in the home or “any other place where he or she has a right to be.”

In Florida, once self-defense is invoked, the burden is on the prosecution to disprove the claim.

Most states have long allowed the use of reasonable force, sometimes including deadly force, to protect oneself inside one’s home — the so-called Castle Doctrine. Outside the home, people generally still have a “duty to retreat” from an attacker, if possible, to avoid confrontation. In other words, if you can get away and you shoot anyway, you can be prosecuted. In Florida, there is no duty to retreat. You can “stand your ground” outside your home, too.

Florida is not alone. Twenty-three other states now allow people to stand their ground. Most of these laws were passed after Florida’s. (A few states never had a duty to retreat to begin with.)

Many of the laws were originally advocated as a way to address domestic abuse cases — how could a battered wife retreat if she was attacked in her own home? Such legislation also has been recently pushed by the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups.

 

handgun_generic

So stand your ground was a way to address domestic violence.  Interesting.  unfortunately it has gone beyond that now.  According to CBS Miami,

As some state lawmakers are calling for a re-thinking of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to defend themselves from danger without the need to first try to get away, an analysis of state data shows deaths due to self defense are up over 200 percent since the law took effect.

The shooting death of Trayvon Martin by an armed, self-appointed Central Florida crime watch volunteer who claimed he shot in self defense has sparked a national debate about Florida’s law, technically known as the Castle doctrine.

According to state crime stats, Florida averaged 12 “justifiable homicide” deaths a year from 2000-2004. After “Stand your Ground” was passed in 2005, the number of “justifiable” deaths has almost tripled to an average of 35 a year, an increase of 283% from 2005-2010.

I wonder who those victims of “justifiable” homicide were and why no one is investigating those deaths.  And what are the statistics from the other states?  Have they had a similar increase?  Massachusetts is considering a “Stand Your Ground” law.  The legislature should look into these questions before they do anything.   The Washington Post has some of the answers in their editorial published today.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida experienced an average of 34 “justifiable homicides” before 2005; two years after the Stand Your Ground law was enacted, the number jumped to more than 100. Similarly disturbing spikes have been found in other states with similar laws. According to an analysis of FBI data done by the office of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), who co-chairs the 650-strong Mayors Against Illegal Guns, states that passed Stand Your Ground laws experienced a 53.5 percent increase in “justifiable homicides” in the three years following enactment; states without such laws saw a 4.2 percent increase.

The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys opposed Stand Your Ground laws, arguing that they were unnecessary and likely a danger to public safety. In a 2007 report, they foreshadowed the Trayvon Martin tragedy. “Although the spirit of the law may be to allow the public to feel safer, the expansions may instead create a sense of fear from others, particularly strangers,” the report said, concluding that enactment would have a “disproportionately negative effect on minorities, persons from lower socio-economic status, and young adults/juveniles” who are often unjustly stereotyped as suspects.

While this law might have had as one of its original purposes protecting women who are victims of domestic violence, there are other ways to do this.  While we don’t know, and may never know, what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman that night about a month ago, we can look at these laws and understand that they really protect no one.  Florida Governor Scott and I don’t agree on much, but we do agree that the law should be reviewed.  Perhaps some good can come from all of this.