It’s pretty funny that Rep. Dennis Baxley, the guy who helped push Florida’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law (or Make My Day as it’s affectionately referred to in other states), is also the owner of several funeral homes across the Sunshine State. Although violent crime has decreased in Florida since Baxley engineered the legislation, that doesn’t necessarily mean less people are getting shot or maimed unlawfully. One of the biggest problems with Stand Your Ground laws and their offshoots, according to some law experts, is that they can deter police from charging assailants in iffy situations, because the law grants immunity to citizens who act in “self defense.” This unfortunate circumstance, coupled with the highly discussed probability of racial prejudice, is one of the reasons George Zimmerman (a guy people keep telling me is Hispanic, even though he has the same last name as Bob Dylan) has yet to be arrested.
Honestly, the notion that Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black kid walking around a gated community in Sanford, Florida, got shot on Feb. 26 simply for being a “coon” (as Zimmeran is suspected to have referred to him during the now infamous 911 call) in the wrong place at the wrong time is not that shocking to me. Sadly, unarmed black men get shot all the fucking time. When I heard about Martin, I couldn’t help but think of slain brothers Sean Bell, Malcolm Ferguson, Amadou Diallo, and most recently Remarley Graham.
However, the Stand Your Ground immunity makes Martin’s case different from those older or lesser-known incidents of unarmed shootings. Justice is being averted here not because the shooter belongs to the club that is also tasked with solving the crime, but because of this application or misapplication of Stand Your Ground.
Stand Your Ground extends from the Castle Doctrine, which is common law that grants citizens the right to defend their homes with force. The Florida Statutes of Justifiable Force broadens this right outside of the home to apply to altercations anywhere the individual in question is rightfully inhabiting at any given time. It also removes the “duty to retreat,” which has always been a caveat to the right of self defense. So, the gist of Stand Your Ground is that, if you feel threatened, as 28-year-old Zimmerman claims he was from the 80 pound-lighter Trayvon, you can “stand your ground” and respond with bullets, regardless of the severity of the threat posed. What you can’t do is go around pursuing people and then shooting them, which is what it appears that Zimmerman did from the evidence circulating in the media. If you want to live in a western starring some asshole who thinks he’s Clint Eastwood, move to Texas please. Then maybe the rest of the country can be at peace, knowing that every piece of garbage with a gun will be shooting other pieces of garbage with guns thus making the world a better place.
Anyhow, I discussed the curious law with Baxley, its legislative sponsor, over the phone yesterday and today. I have to say that I was surprised he was so willing to talk. He was genial to me, remorseful for Trayvon and his family, and extremely proud of this work. But is that enough? I’ll let you decide.
VICE: How does Stand Your Ground apply to the Trayvon Martin shooting?
Dennis Baxley: Well, first of all I want to extend my sympathy to Trayvon’s family. The problem here is not with the right to defend yourself in the Castle Doctrine. What’s happened is not something that is authorized by that statute. The Castle Doctrine itself, I think is a sound principle.
I agree. But the problem here, in my view, is with the extension in the Stand Your Ground law that allows you to take your “castle” with you, so to speak. Zimmerman is free now because he claims to have been acting in accordance with the law’s definition of “self defense.”
I don’t know enough about the case or its details. I hesitate to speculate on that. Just because someone can take a law and try to use it for a defense doesn’t make it applicable. When you isolate the fact that a person is pursuing and confronting, that changes the whole setting. If you initiate an incident, you’ve just stepped out on thin ice.
So, to you, the problem here isn’t with the law itself, but with its misuse?
Right. The law is about a law-abiding person being where they are supposed to be, doing what they are supposed to do, and suddenly coming under attack.
Do you think there is widespread misuse? There is a statistic being thrown around in the media that claims the annual cases related to Stand Your Ground have tripled.
I think the statistic probably means the perpetrator is the person who’s been hurt in these situations instead of the victim. That’s a favorable aspect to me. I can see where people might try to grasp this statute and use it for their own defense. In some ways, it is unfortunate that Trayvon wasn’t armed to defend himself.
A lot of experts argue that, as in this case, the police are less likely to charge someone for a crime if they could possibly use Stand Your Ground as a defense. Did you foresee that back in 2005 when you helped write the law?
They may be less likely to charge someone who is in a defensive posture. But you have to look at things from the beginning. This law protects a person that is under attack in a place they have a right to be. They are committing no offense or crime. When you lay out all of those parameters, it is clearly a self-defense law. You can’t even jaywalk and be supported by this thing.
But isn’t self defense already protected? Why did Florida need another law?
The problem was that self defense wasn’t canonized in the law. It was at the discretion of the prosecuting attorney. We passed this so that you, the victim, do not become the suspect. People talk about retreating, but that’s Monday-morning quarterbacking. When you’re in the moment, it is life or death. You have a few seconds to decide if you want to be the victim or you want the perpetrator to be the victim.
In justifying this law, you, the NRA, and others have cited these cases where a victim ends up, as you said, “becoming the suspect” and getting charged or sued? Most experts say these are tall tales, urban legends. Can you name a specific case?
No. This stuff is kind of stale for me. In ’05 I had all that stuff at my fingertips. I can’t recall the individual incidents now. I know that it did happen. I just don’t have the documentation at this point.
Are you member of the NRA?
Yes, I have been for a long time. I don’t remember exactly when I started, but I believe in freedom and protecting our rights to protect ourselves.
Was the NRA helpful to you in getting this law passed?
They were very helpful in Florida and getting these types of legislations passed across the country.
Have they helped you on the campaign trail?
Absolutely. They represent a common value that is treasured here.
Do you carry a gun?
How can you be in the NRA and pass Make My Day laws and not carry a gun?
The fact that I can is what deters criminals. So, I don’t like to advertise that I don’t even own a firearm. What protects me is the fact that the criminals don’t know if I do or I don’t.
Criminals with guns seek out places where people can’t have firearms. They are always looking for the open door. We need to show people how not to be a victim and not to be identified as a victim, because they are always looking for the weakest link.
Do you really think these laws make people safer?
This is one of the most appreciated forms of legislation I’ve passed. I get thanked by people, especially law enforcement. When they get there, it’s over. It’s handled.