New law adds crime victim protection

Steve Chapman

When Florida passed a law in 1987 making it easier for citizens to get licenses to carry concealed firearms, opponents predicted that blood would run in the streets. “When you have 10 times as many people carrying guns as you do now, and they get into an argument and tempers flash, you’re going to have people taking out guns and killing people,” one gun control activist said.

Since the law was passed, it turns out, Florida’s murder rate has been cut in half. Instead of becoming more dangerous, the state has become considerably safer.

With rare exceptions, the people carrying guns have done so responsibly. In the last 18 years, the state has granted more than 1 million conceal-carry permits. Only 155 people have had their licenses revoked for crimes involving firearms — one for every 7,000 licenses issued.

The warnings of gun control advocates about that law were way off the mark. So when you hear them warn that another law concerning firearms will lead to unnecessary bloodshed in Florida, skepticism is in order.

Last spring, the Florida Legislature passed a measure giving citizens more legal protection when they act in self-defense. That alarmed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which describes the policy as “shoot first, ask questions never.”

Recently, the group handed out leaflets at the Miami airport to advise arriving passengers to exercise extreme caution: “Do not argue unnecessarily with local people. If someone appears to be angry with you . . . do not shout or make threatening gestures.”

The new law, which took effect Oct. 1, gives greater protection to citizens who feel compelled to use deadly force when they are attacked in a public place.

Before, someone facing “imminent death or great bodily harm” had an obligation to retreat if possible. Under the new rule, it’s different. As David Kopel of the Colorado-based Independence Institute puts it, “If a gang tries to mug you while you are walking down a dark street, and you draw a gun and shoot one of the gangsters, a prosecutor cannot argue that you should have tried to run away.”

Opponents have characterized the change to mean any Floridian with a firearm can blast away with impunity. “I can picture a stressed-out Tampa soccer mom drawing a bead on an approaching panhandler and shrieking, ‘Go ahead, make my day!’” fantasized Time magazine columnist Michelle Cottle.

But the law doesn’t say you can shoot anyone who approaches you on the street, or anyone who annoys you. It says you may resort to deadly force only if 1) you are attacked or threatened with violence and 2) you have good reason to fear being killed or badly hurt. If a panhandler asks you for spare change, or even curses you, that wouldn’t qualify. If a beefy, hostile biker screams that he’s going to stomp you, or rape you, that probably would.

While the “stand your ground” rule may be new in the Sunshine State, it’s old hat elsewhere. “The majority of American states have always held that a person who is attacked anywhere in a manner that threatens death or great bodily harm is entitled to use deadly force to resist, rather than retreating from the attacker,” says criminologist Don Kates, author of several books on gun issues. However, you don’t see Brady Campaign staffers handing out fliers in the other states.

Why shouldn’t people who are attacked have to look for an escape route before fighting back? One reason is that a victim may expose herself to additional risk by trying to flee from a criminal who is larger and faster than she is.

Another problem with the old rule is that if she makes the wrong decision and defends herself when she might arguably have gotten away, she can end up in prison. She can also be sued. Judging whether it’s safe to flee is a split-second, life-and-death decision, and the penalty for being wrong — at least in the eyes of the police — can be heavy.

Supporters of the law think victims shouldn’t be punished for acting in self-defense against a serious threat. The change reflects the view that it would not be a bad thing for criminals to face greater risks when they resort to violence. And it embraces the proposition — anathema to gun control advocates — that self-defense is the fundamental right of every person.

It may be that the new law errs on the side of giving too much protection to victims of violent crime. However, that beats erring on the side of giving them too little.

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. E-mail him at: schapman@tribune.com