Florida shooting puts Bay State bill on ‘stand your ground’ in spotlight

Melissa Tabeek, Special to the Reporter
Mar. 29, 2012

Members of Dorchester’s State House delegation are weighing in against a “Stand Your Ground” bill that would allow individuals to use deadly force if they felt threatened in public.

“Stand your ground” laws and legislation have gained national attention after the shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin, in Florida on Feb. 26. The shooter, George Zimmerman, stated he acted in self-defense and has not been charged with any offense.

Some fear that similar occurrences could play out in Massachusetts if a proposed bill (S-661) passes. The legislation was filed in Jan. 2011 by state Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) “on behalf of the Gun Owner’s Action League and with the support of many of my constituents,” according to an e-mailed statement from Brewer. 

The bill would expand current “castle doctrine” law to a “stand your ground” one, where a person has a right to use deadly force to defend themselves “any place that they have a right to be,” without any duty to retreat. The castle doctrine — originating in English common law — states that individuals have the right to defend themselves against attack and invasion within their home without being prosecuted.

And that is as far as the law should go, according to state Rep. Carlos Henriquez (D-Dorchester). “I am a strong believer in the Second Amendment. I also believe in the castle doctrine: your house is your castle and I don’t believe you should leave your home if someone unlawfully enters. But for me, that’s where it stops.”

In 2005, Florida became the first state to pass a “stand your ground” law; since then, 17 states have adopted similar statutes, according to Stateline.org.

State Rep. Russell Holmes, a member of the Joint Judiciary Committee on the Judiciary, said that when he saw a newscast highlighting Massachusetts as among the states that could potentially adopt a “stand your ground” law, he realized how important it was that the bill not pass.

“I saw Massachusetts being included and I’m thinking, ‘No way should that pass here.’ My prayer is that we push as much as possible to make sure that bill doesn’t get passed,” said Holmes.

State Sen. Jack Hart said Massachusetts self-defense laws are already on the books. “I’m satisfied that the law already addresses self-defense,” he said.

State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry said that a focus on communities, rather than an extension of a law, is what is most important for keeping citizens safe. “We have to protect our children and I don’t think a law like this on the books helps that. We have to go back to education and strengthening communities. I think that’s what’s going to be critical.”

Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, said that Conley had not yet fully reviewed Brewer’s bill while noting that “Massachusetts law already protects an individual who uses force in self-defense or defense of another.”

Wark cited the 2009 example of security guard Paul Langone, who shot and killed a deranged man who was attacking a doctor with a knife inside a downtown Boston office building. “It was clear from the facts that [Langone’s] conduct wasn’t criminal. He was never charged. And even if he had been charged, the law as it stands already puts the burden on prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not acting to protect himself or another person from harm,” said Wark.

A recent Tampa Bay Times survey showed that Florida’s “stand your ground” law has been cited in 130 cases since its passage seven years ago. The Times reported that this is happening with more frequency, with 37 of those cases occurring in the last year and a half. And in the majority of those instances, the individuals who used force did not stand trial.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz pointed to these facts when she spoke about her reasons for opposing the bill. She thinks that the bill will promote a lower level of scrutiny when violent crimes are being investigated.

“Removing the scrutiny that our system calls for now would be a grave mistake,” she said.

Brewer acknowledged in his statement that what happened in Florida is a tragedy, but the bill would not protect men like Zimmerman, who pursue or chase other citizens. Rather, he wrote, it would provide protection only for “responsible citizens” who find themselves in need of protection outside of their home.

He added: “Although the bill expands an individual’s right to protect themselves to ‘anywhere they are legally allowed to be’, broadening the current law to provide protection outside of the home, the language remains unyielding that an individual using force, including deadly force, must be protecting themselves or another from ‘great personal injury or death.’ ”

Rep. Cleon Turner, a Dennis Democrat and a co-sponsor of the bill, said that he is generally in favor of the legislation, but has an issue with the language. Turner said he would like to see the language reflect the importance of using force appropriate to the situation.

“It has to be ‘reasonable force under the circumstances.’ You can’t use a shotgun on somebody who is threatening you with a baseball bat.”

The bill has been referred to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. There was a hearing in February, but neither the Judiciary Committee nor Brewer’s office would provide lists of those who spoke in favor or against the bill, saying it keeps such things confidential. Aside from Brewer and Turner, 25 other legislators have signed on as co-sponsors, none of them from Boston.

Looking forward, Chang-Diaz said there is a “long distance” from a bill reporting out of committee favorably to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk. She believes that the future of the bill is uncertain and hopes that ultimately it will not pass calling it a tragic step in the wrong direction.”