Is self-defense law vigilante justice?

Some say proposed laws can help deter gun violence. Others worry about deadly confrontations.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Instead of embracing a citizen's "duty to retreat" in the face of a physical attack, states may be taking cues from the days of lawless frontier towns, where non-deputized Americans were within their rights to hold the bad guys at bay with the threat of deadly force.

First enacted in Florida last year, "Stand Your Ground" bills are now being considered in 21 states including Georgia, according to the National Rifle Association and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The South Dakota senate approved one just last week.

These new measures would push the boundaries beyond the self-defense measures already on the books. Twelve states already allow citizens to shoot intruders in their homes, and 38 states permit concealed weapons in public places. The "Stand Your Ground" laws would allow people to defend themselves with deadly force even in public places when they perceive a life-threatening situation for themselves or others, and they would not be held accountable in criminal or civil court even if bystanders are injured.

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Laws putting more judgment in an individual's hands stem from people's increased concern about crime in their communities. Proponents say it helps shift the debate from gun control to crime control, and that these laws are part of the rugged individualism of Americans.

"These laws send a more general message to society that public spaces belong to the public - and the public will protect [public places] rather than trying to run into the bathroom of the nearest Starbucks and hope the police show up," says David Kopel, director of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colo.

Some critics say such "Wild West" laws are vigilante justice, and commonplace confrontations and more likely turn to violence.

"You don't just broadly paint a new statewide law saying, if you're in doubt, go ahead and shoot and kill the other person," says Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington. "It's anathema to peace and calm in our communities."

Currently, Florida's new law is being tested for the first time. In Tampa, a tow- truck operator who shot and killed a man he said was trying to run him over used the "Stand Your Ground" law as a defense. The district attorney is evaluating other forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony that the shots came from behind, and therefore were not in self-defense.

To be sure, the laws challenge the notion of "duty to retreat" from attack upheld by many state supreme courts. Yet the US Supreme Court came down against the "duty to retreat" in a 1921 ruling.

In 2004, a National Academies of Science study was unable to draw any conclusions about whether owing a gun makes citizens safer.

About 35 percent of American homes contain some kind of firearm, according to Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. Their research also shows that while there are 1.3 million gun-related crimes committed in the US each year, guns are used for self-defense 108,000 times in the same period.

Indeed, those lobbying for the "Stand Your Ground" legislation say the proposed laws are more symbolic, sending a powerful message to would-be criminals. These laws "make it very clear that the good guy has the advantage, not the bad guy," says Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Va.

However, many observers say the laws may promote gun violence as urban gangs could claim self-protection in the aftermath of shootouts. In Michigan this week, people protested a proposed "Stand Your Ground" law by wearing orange "innocent bystander" T-shirts. It came only a few days after an 8-year-old boy was killed in Detroit by a stray bullet from a gun fight.

"Stand Your Ground" laws could also change the way Americans deal with each other, some experts say.

"If you're in a state that's passed one of these laws, any time you're in a potential confrontation you'll have to think about the fact that, 'Will the fellow on the other side misunderstand my anger and pull out a gun?' " says Robert Batey, a law professor at Stetson University in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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