By: Marc Fisher and Dan Eggen, April 7, 2012
When Billy Kuch knocked on the wrong door, he had a cigarette in one hand and a shirt in the other. The homeowner, Gregory Stewart, stepped outside, stood his ground, fired a round from his semiautomatic into Kuch’s chest, and in the eyes of the state of Florida, committed no crime.
Three years after that shooting, in a Land O’ Lakes subdivision called Stagecoach Village, Kuch is alive but damaged by his injuries and the shock of being shot at point-blank range. Stewart is free but lying low, still sought out by neighbors and others who want him to account for his actions.
“I have no problem with people owning guns to protect themselves,” says Bill Kuch, Billy’s father. “But somehow, we’ve reached the point where the shooter’s word is the law. The victim doesn’t even get his day in court. I don’t think most Americans realize it, but that’s where we are.”
In Florida and across the country, “Stand Your Ground” laws — the same kind of legislation that authorities cited for not arresting a neighborhood-watch volunteer after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in February — have coincided with a sharp increase in justifiable-homicide cases.
Prosecutors still reject many claims of self-defense under the new law, and no long-term studies definitively tie the rise in justifiable killings to the passage of laws that relieve citizens of the responsibility to back away from threats. But the Martin case has focused a spotlight on incidents in which the mere statement that people feel endangered allows them to — depending on your sense of what’s right — defend themselves against thugs or act like vigilantes.
This sharp turn in American law — expanding the right to defend one’s home from attack into a more general right to meet force with force in any public place — began in Florida in 2005 and has spread to more than 30 other states as a result of a campaign by the National Rifle Association and a corporate-backed group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes conservative bills.
Florida has been at the forefront of expanding gun rights for decades, ever since an NRA lobbyist named Marion Hammer, the NRA’s first female president, became a force in the state capitol in Tallahassee.
When she helped write the Stand Your Ground bill and circulated it, some police chiefs and other law enforcement officials warned that the measure would make it hard to convict people of murder — defendants would simply claim self-defense and challenge prosecutors to prove they were lying.
But those concerns were heavily outweighed by lawmakers’ desire to send a message to taxpayers that the justice system would no longer consider suspect those who defend themselves against attack.
In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and amid images of lawlessness in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, many Floridians — and Americans generally — felt less safe and believed the justice system could not protect victims, said a study of Stand Your Ground laws by the National District Attorneys Association.
In Florida, where looters appeared in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Hammer launched her drive for the new law based on the case of James Workman, a 77-year-old Pensacola man who fatally shot an intruder who entered the trailer Workman was living in after the storm damaged his house.
Prosecutors decided not to charge Workman, but many lawmakers pronounced themselves appalled that he had to endure months of uncertainty before being cleared.
Hammer told legislators her bill would protect citizens who simply defended themselves: “You can’t expect a victim to wait before taking action to protect herself and say, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Criminal, did you drag me into this alley to rape and kill me, or do you just want to beat me up and steal my purse?’ ”
The Florida Senate passed the bill unanimously.
The law says a person “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm.”
In response, a pro-gun-control group put up ads aimed at visiting tourists alerting them to “Florida’s Shoot First Law.”
These days, Democrats and Republicans alike wonder whether the law should be tweaked to give prosecutors more leeway to determine whether a shooter really was in danger when the trigger was pulled.
Asked about the Martin case last week, former governor Jeb Bush, initially an enthusiastic backer of the legislation, said, “Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back.”
Hammer sees no cause to refine or backtrack. Neither she nor NRA officials responded to requests for comment, but Hammer told the Palm Beach Post that officials should not be “stampeded by emotionalism. . . . This law is not about one incident. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the law.”
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