THE RIGHT to defend one’s home and oneself is not under threat in Massachusetts. There’s plenty of room under current law to do both. The “stand your ground’’ bill in the Legislature is a solution in search of a problem, and it’s a bad solution at that. As the nation reels from the controversy surrounding Florida’s “stand your ground’’ law in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin, it’s important that Massachusetts bury any thought of passing a similar law.
The so-called “castle doctrine’’ already gives Massachusetts residents the right to use deadly force when protecting their homes and families from intruders. But state law makes a distinction for self-defense in street situations, where people are required to explore an avenue of retreat before using deadly force against an attacker. Senator Stephen Brewer of Barre has filed a “stand your ground’’ bill to eliminate that distinction on behalf of the Gun Owner’s Action League.
The existing self-defense laws in Massachusetts work at both a practical and philosophical level. To justify self-defense in the street, someone must believe an attack is imminent, use no more force than is reasonably necessary, and look for a way out, if possible. But states are increasingly backing away from such a sound approach to satisfy gun owners’ demands for “stand your ground’’ laws, which erase the mandate to look for a way out and allow the gun owner to fire away. It’s a terrible development, and one that reflects the political clout of gun advocates more than a legitimate concern for public safety.
One of the downsides of the “stand your ground’’ laws can be seen in case of Martin, who was shot to death under murky circumstances in Florida by neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman. Police cited the law in deciding not to arrest Zimmerman. Intense confusion and anger followed as Martin’s family and supporters accused Zimmerman of racism and vigilantism. Massachusetts would be inviting a similar scenario if it passes a “stand your ground’’ law.
One part of Brewer’s bill might make sense if he can show that it responds to a real and measurable problem. Currently, someone who exercises legitimate self-defense can still be sued by the attacker. The bill would provide immunity from such suits.
Representative Daniel Winslow of Norfolk, the former presiding judge in Wrentham District Court, said it was that aspect of the bill that prompted his support. But he sees no compelling reason why the requirement to seek an escape route should be stricken from the books.
Absent any evidence that civil suits brought by attackers are a significant problem here, this bill doesn’t deserve serious consideration.