With parking-lot shooting, Florida 'stand your ground' law takes the stand

Why We Wrote This

When is it acceptable for one citizen to take the life of another? That question has erupted anew as Floridians grapple with what constraints, if any, should be placed on the use of force in self-defense.

Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times/AP
Michael McGlockton (r.) wipes the face of his 5-year-old grandson, Markeis, as protesters gather in Clearwater, Fla., July 22. The boy’s father, Markeis McGlockton, had been shot and killed in a dispute over a parking space in Clearwater’s Greenwood neighborhood three days earlier.

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Florida is once again at the epicenter of a national debate around so-called stand your ground laws. The arrest of Michael Drejka for shooting and killing Markeis McGlockton in a Clearwater parking lot suggests that the state that pioneered “stand your ground” protections for individuals employing deadly force in self-defense may be starting to sketch some parameters around the law. Mr. Drejka has maintained that he feared for his life and had acted within what he understood to be the constraints of the law. The local sheriff agreed and declined to arrest Drejka in the immediate wake of the shooting. The state attorney disagreed, however, filing manslaughter charges on Aug. 13. Drejka pleaded not guilty. Residents are still wrestling not just with the proximity, but the complexity of the shooting – and what it means for how Floridians behave toward each other. In the eyes of one local gun salesman, even a well-meaning law that supports gun rights should be reconsidered if it begins to reinforce vigilantism. “When they issued my concealed-carry permit,” he says, “I’m pretty sure it didn’t come with a cape.”

Dan Drake looked up in alarm on July 19 when he heard the gunshots from the direction of the Circle A Food Store, where his teenage daughter had headed by foot. He relaxed slightly when she came running back down the sidewalk. Someone just got shot up on the corner, she said.

Mr. Drake thought it was a gang shooting – not unheard of in this Clearwater, Fla., neighborhood known as Greenwood. He then heard that a black man he knew by sight, Markeis McGlockton, had been shot and killed by an older white man, Michael Drejka, over a parking space argument. Mr. McGlockton was killed after pushing Mr. Drejka, who had confronted McGlockton’s girlfriend about parking in a handicapped spot.

“Markeis acted like any man would, protecting his family, and for that he was killed,” says Drake, who is black. “I don’t care about race. If you have the loaded gun in your pocket, you’re looking for trouble.”

For his part, Drejka has told local reporters that he feared for his life and acted within what he understood to be the constraints of the law.

The local sheriff initially agreed with Drejka. Under the state’s so-called stand your ground law, the sheriff said, Drejka’s role in instigating the conflict didn’t matter if he felt that the shove suggested a reasonable threat to his life.

The state attorney disagreed, however, filing manslaughter charges on Aug. 13. Drejka pleaded not guilty.

Five years after George Zimmerman was acquitted after killing an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., the state that pioneered the “stand your ground” law is still grappling with what constraints, if any, should be placed on the use of force in self-defense.

The law takes away any duty to retreat from danger, allowing Floridians to respond with deadly force to a reasonable threat. Proponents say stand your ground has made Florida safer by empowering law-abiding gun owners, citing a dramatic dip in the violent crime rate since 1997.

But experts point out that drop began several years before the law passed in 2005, and matches a two-decade decline in violent crime across the United States. And they say law has emboldened vigilantes – many of whom have been middle-aged white men. Ahead of a bellwether election that will likely focus on criminal justice inequities in the criminal justice system, the McGlockton killing has only hardened racial and class tensions, mirroring closely the nation as a whole. 

In that way, the aftermath of what happened here on this Clearwater corner, experts say, may proffer larger lessons for a country on edge by giving a sympathetic glimpse into the humanity of victims and increased clarity on when self-defense can and cannot be legally justified.

The Circle A shooting shows how “stand-your-ground is a wink-and-a-nod law, open to interpretation,” says Harvard University historian Caroline Light, author of “Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair With Lethal Self-defense.” “People like Drejka, they are paying attention to what is happening – the outcome of the Zimmerman case, to all the other cases – and it is showing them that there’s a pattern by which certain kinds of vigilante acts are going to get excused.”

The roots of stand your ground

The fundamentals of the law are not shaded by race. English common law underscores the duty of people to retreat until retreat is no longer possible. Several New England states still embody that standard. But Western and Southern states, by character, nature, and necessity, have historically embraced a different standard that by the 1930s had been written into common law in most states, writes Richard Maxwell Brown in “No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society.”

United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used the phrase “stand your ground” in explaining a “reasonable belief” standard for justifiable homicide. Holmes memorably noted that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.”

In 2005, Florida became the first state to enshrine the right to use deadly force in self-defense, even when retreat is possible. More than two dozen states have since passed similar legislation.

The Florida legislature beefed up stand our ground last year, which likely contributed to the the Pinellas sheriff's initial decision not to charge Drejka.

The legislature “shifted the burden of proof in a pre-trial hearing from the defense to the prosecution,” explains Charles Rose, a law professor at Stetson University in Gulfport, Fla. “That leaves the possibility that if you indict someone and it doesn’t hold up during the hearing, then you may be facing an allegation of false imprisonment by the individual who was asserting stand your ground.”

To critics, that shifts the reasonableness standard too far, creating a special class of armed citizen vigilantes who have more rights than their victims. That concern is heightened in a state where 1 out of 15 residents have a concealed-carry permit, the largest proportion in the US.

“People are emboldened – they know they have this right under Florida law to shoot first and ask questions later – and it is a deadly combination,” says Laura Cutilletta, the legal director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco.

She points out that last year the Urban Institute found that when a shooter is white and the victim is black, the homicide is 281 percent more likely to be found justified than if the roles are reversed. “So,” she concludes, “the way the law is structured in Florida – and it is not alone in this – it is really skewed in favor of someone walking around with a loaded gun. Add prosecutorial and jury biases and it favors white people that are armed.”

An American microcosm?

The Circle A Food Store sits on a national faultline – a suburban crossroads perched atop the glimmer of Old Clearwater Bay. Mere blocks, according to Zillow, separate $350,000 stucco ranches from similar square footage homes that sell for $80,000 in Greenwood. Yet people of all races frequent the Circle A.

This is where a memorial marks McGlockton’s death, next to an overflowing dumpster. The neighborhood is smack in the middle of the 10-county Tampa Bay media market, the largest in Florida, containing 24 percent of the electorate.

Residents are still wrestling not just with the proximity, but the complexity of the shooting – and what it means for how Floridians behave toward each other.

Patrik Jonsson
Tommy Collins speaks about the shooting of Markeis McGlockton in Clearwater, Fla.

One resident, a wiry YouTuber and marketing guru named Tommy Collins, has lived all over the world – from Alabama to Abu Dhabi – and sees an American microcosm here in the Florida burbs and its racial boundaries, overlaid with “rage and edginess.”

Watching a video of the shooting, he had a flurry of sympathy for Drejka.

In part, he understands how someone can feel threatened. “It was a hard push, but it also seemed the other guy saw the gun and was stepping back.”

And he acknowledges that race simmers below the surface. “You won’t hear the N-word with three people in the room, but you will with two,” he says.

“I just think about if it was in reverse,” Mr. Collins says. “If a black man kills a white man after harassing the man’s family, does he walk away?”

The flaw in the law, critics say, may not be that it empowers a particular group of people like gun owners – but that it makes everyone more susceptible to making deadly mistakes.

“The problem is it flows into implicit bias issues” that don’t always fall along racial lines, says Professor Rose. “Implicit bias is what people rely on to make snap judgment decisions when they feel threatened. You don’t want laws that play into and support the biases that exist in all of us, because it is too easy for those to be misapplied.”

Whether Drejka will be convicted hangs over a state that is already seeing racial tensions rising, says University of Florida emeritus professor Susan MacManus, an expert on Florida politics.

Democrat Andrew Gillum, a former Tallahassee mayor who is black, is now set to take on Rep. Ron DeSantis, a fervently pro-Trump Republican, for the governorship. Mr. DeSantis caught flak for his suggestion that Mr. Gillum would “monkey this up,” meaning the strong Florida economy. Monkey references have deep historical roots and are widely considered racial coding. DeSantis called that idea “absurd,” though Fox News apologized for the reference after the interview. And last week, a robocall of someone pretending to be Gillum featuring minstrel language and jungle sounds was sent out by a neo-Nazi podcast.

In that light, the nomination of Gillum and his promise to reform stand your ground will “remind voters who have been concerned for years about racial inequities in the criminal justice system to get out and vote,” says Professor MacManus. “Remember, Florida is a bellwether in large part because its racial and ethnic diversity mirrors the country.”

Across from the Circle A is Cole’s Gun Shop, where a rough concrete block exterior gives way to a neat showroom of weaponry. Rocco, one of the salesmen, says his shop did not sell Drejka his gun.

He represents a key demographic in a state beholden to the influence of the National Rifle Association. But instead of supporting his fellow gun owner, he fully supports the arrest and prosecution of Drejka. He isn’t sure the law needs to be changed, but hopes the trial will clarify its limits. Force, he says, has to be commensurate with the threat.

If even a well-meaning law that supports gun rights begins to reinforce vigilantism, it should be reevaluated, he says. 

“When they issued my concealed-carry permit,” he says, “I’m pretty sure it didn’t come with a cape.”

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