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‘Stand your ground’ laws tied to rise in self-defense killings

Trayvon Martin case highlights growing concern

WASHINGTON - 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.

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“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.’’

Across the country, “stand your ground’’ laws - the same kind of legislation 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. The man who killed Martin, George Zimmerman, was charged last week with second-degree murder after the case was transferred to a special prosecutor.

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, 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.

The Florida Senate passed the bill unanimously.

Now, 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, 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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