Today’s Chicago Sun-Times editorial page takes a shot at “Stand Your Ground” laws in the wake of Tuesday’s Senate hearing on this much-debated self-defense doctrine, using a term, and perhaps even a tactic, straight out of the gun control playbook exposed by this column almost three months ago.
The hearing, before anti-gun Sen. Dick Durbin’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, is being widely reported and discussed today from a variety of angles. Mother Jones trots out the race card, the Washington Times offers a more balanced approach, Breitbart defends Sen. Ted Cruz and a blogger in San Antonio offers his perspective.
But the Sun-Times editorial bumps into page 45 of the playbook when it notes that SYG statutes are “sometimes called ‘shoot first laws’,” a term that the playbook says is “far more accurate and persuasive.” The newspaper also suggests, perhaps erroneously, that “Under traditional law, a person is required to back off from a confrontation if possible rather than immediately resorting to lethal force.” A brief history of SYG can be found here, in which an Indiana case dating back to 1877 known as Runyan v. State recognizes the concept, so maybe there is more than one “tradition” at work.
On April 19, 1775 in a little town called Lexington, Capt. John Parker of the local militia told his men to “stand your ground” and “don’t fire unless fired upon.” Everyone who took U.S. History knows what happened next, and while critics of SYG laws frequently allude to the Wild West, it appears the notion has pretty strong roots in the Colonial Northeast.
Here in Washington, there is no SYG statute, but there is a history of state court rulings dating back nearly a century that hold there is “no duty to retreat” from an attack that occurs anyplace where the intended victim had a right to be. It must be noted that the playbook strongly advises against referring to this concept.
“Another phrase that we should avoid whenever possible is ‘duty to retreat.’ It may be an established legal principle, but in the public square, it sounds weak and hard to defend,” the playbook explains.
SYG laws are political lightning rods for both sides of the gun rights debate. In one corner, self-defense advocates insist that citizens have the right, and possibly even a moral duty, to fight back. In the other corner, self-defense opponents who cling to the criminal appeasement philosophy as the safer strategy almost invariably portray legally-armed citizens as would-be vigilantes.
In Florida following the Trayvon Martin incident, a special panel was appointed to look at that state’s SYG law. Several hearings were held, and virtually all sides were heard. The statute stands.
Ultimately, there may be no satisfactory solution to the dilemma, as was evident at Tuesday’s hearing. Durbin – who clearly does not like SYG laws and claims they “often go too far in encouraging confrontations that escalate into deadly violence” – could only recommend that states carefully review and reconsider their statutes.
Durbin, according to published reports, contended that SYG laws, while allegedly adding to the homicide count, have had no deterrent effect on crimes like robbery or assault. That may not be quite accurate, since self-defense advocates might argue that the perpetrators of those crimes that led to them being killed will not be committing any more robberies or assaults.