The killing of Trayvon Martin has resurrected centuries old racial wounds and pushed a renewed conversation on the role of guns in our society, but one of the more appalling things this case shed a light on is the existence of so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws. Introduced in the state of Florida in 2005, this radical interpretation of the Castle Doctrine extends the right to use deadly force as self-defense outside of the home and does not require a person to establish they attempted to retreat. In fact, the wording is such that one only need that they feared they were in danger of great bodily harm, not death, in order to respond with deadly force. To make matters even worse, the law allows that police investigating a homicide may rule that Stand Your Ground applies and elect to not make an arrest, as was originally the case with George Zimmerman, admitted shooter in the death of Trayvon. As it should, the Stand Your Ground law has come under intense scrutiny.
And as more investigative work is done on the law, the more dismay sets in, not just because it is in effect a license to kill, but due to the discriminatory application. Last week, Salon reported on a story from Georgia, which has a similar law, and a Black man named John McNeil who shot and killed Brian Epp, a White man, in 2005. Epp was armed with a utility knife which, according to the testimony of McNeil’s then 15 year-old son, he had pulled on the teen before McNeil arrived. McNeil claims that when he arrived to his home, where the incident had taken place, Epp was grabbing something from his truck, so McNeil grabbed his gun from the glove compartment. Epp was coming at him fast, McNeil claims, so he jumped out of his care and fired a warning shot into the ground. This did not stop Epp, as he continued to charge, and McNeil fired another shot, this one hitting Epp in the head and killing him. A neighbor witnessed the shooting from across the street and corroborated McNeil’s version of the events, and subsequently the police decided it was a case of self-defense and did not charge him. Nearly a later, the county district attorney decided to prosecute McNeil for murder. He was convicted and sentenced to life.
If McNeil was not protected under the Stand Your Ground statute, it isn’t just an aggressively bad law, it calls into question the fundamental fairness of its application. As does the case of Marissa Alexander.
Alexander is a resident of Jacksonville, FL currently awaiting sentencing for three counts of assault with a deadly weapon with no intent to harm. With mandatory minimums (another issue warrants reform), she faces 20 years in prison. In 2010, Alexander fired a legally registered handgun, hitting no one, in a confrontation with her husband. She claims that in a jealous rage, the husband shoved, strangled, and held her against her will. When she was able to get free, she ran, and retrieved her weapon for further protection. Her husband stood with his two sons, as Alexander claims he yelled “B*tch I will kill you!” She then fired a single shot at ceiling in an attempt to scare him. He contacted the police and she was taken into custody.
In addition, according to Alexander, the husband had been arrested two times before for domestic abuse, which includes one instance that landed Alexander in the hospital. A man claiming to be Alexander’s husband, though it could not be completely verified, contacted Politics 365 to offer his side of the story, telling them, “She’s just using the stand-your-ground because of the Trayvon incident. I feel sorry for her but at the same time I thought I was going to die that day in front of my kids.”
But the question is this: how is it that George Zimmerman, a White Hispanic man, was taken at his word with regards to standing his ground, in the case of a death, but a Black woman claiming to defend herself against domestic violence now faces 20 years in prison under the same law? Granted, different police officers can make different judgments, and there is still the possibility that Zimmerman’s hearing on Stand Your Ground won’t pan out in his favor, but he was still afforded the benefit of the doubt where Alexander wasn’t.
It’s particularly tough to swallow because protection from domestic abuse is one of the original justifications given for the necessity of Stand Your Ground. If it doesn’t apply for Alexander, then for whom? The statute is meant to grant broad latitude for self-defense claims, yet somehow, in the case of this Black woman, the law becomes stringent.
Stand Your Ground is a law that requires much scrutiny, and in the opinion of myself and a growing number of citizens, should be repealed by the 20+ states where it is currently on the books. As we have seen with Trayvon’s death, it has the potential to encourage vigilantism, but even without that it offers a “kill at will” pass that would devolve what is supposed to be a civil society into wild west rules of engagement. And if it can not be applied fairly across the board, it only further complicates what is a terribly regressive law. If a law only serves to exacerbate inequality, it’s not a law worth abiding.