Welcome to the new America, land of the fearful, land of the heavily armed. Under new laws being rolled out in 15 states, the right to self-defense is being expanded in ways that start to make the whole concept questionable at best. At worst, we are turning armed citizens into state-sanctioned murderers.
Let me first be clear: I believe in the right to self-defense. Not only would I do what was necessary to protect myself and my family from harm, that right has existed in law for a long time.
However, the expansion of the right of self-defense in 15 states, according to a recent New York Times article, is greatly disturbing. The Times takes Florida as its example, where the new law allows the use of deadly force against any intruder who enters someoneís home or vehicle. It also removed the stipulation that persons attacked in public places have the obligation to flee or otherwise attempt to remove themselves from the situation before resorting to violent force.
Now, Iím not defending illegal entry, but I do believe there is a valid distinction to be made here. The new Florida law does not even require that the homeowner be threatened or in danger. The simple fact of trespassing, then, allows the home or property owner to take the violatorís life. Moreover, since this law applies in public as well, any confrontation can progress to the use of deadly force.
The wording of the actual Florida law, in fact, defines any illegal and forcible entry into a home or vehicle as a direct threat of violence to those in the home. In other words, even if a burglar is unarmed and has no intention of hurting anyone, the homeowner can gun him down and face no repercussions, either in criminal or in civil courts (since the new law also bars civil action like a wrongful death suit).
Was the burglar breaking the law? Absolutely, and he should go to jail for it. But why is the homeowner allowed to kill him, when the state is not? After all, we donít sanction the death penalty for burglary, and any law that did would surely be considered cruel and unusual. Again, the Florida law creates the presumption that any burglar intends violent harm to the residents of a home or vehicle. There is no need for the homeowner to prove anything.
Of course, there is no way to know what will happen until the new law is tested; police can still investigate any killing they suspect to be illegal, and the law does make some good exceptions for legal residents of the home, while stipulating that anyone engaged in illegal activity in the home is not protected by the statute. My fear, however, is that the siege mentality of this law will lead to tragic mistakes.
Florida is, in effect, telling its citizens to shoot first and ask questions later. Even if it remains illegal for me to shoot my son as he sneaks into the house after a drunken night out, that will be little comfort once heís dead. By removing the requirement that the homeowner actually be threatened by the intruder, the new law makes such mistakes much more likely. It removed any responsibility from the homeowner to know just who he or she is shooting.
On the open street, the situation becomes even more dangerous. Is that suspicious-looking man reaching for a weapon? Under the old law, it would be best if I crossed the street or otherwise sought shelter. Now, I can simply pull my gun and shoot the man; thereís a reasonable chance my actions will not land me in jail, and as for the dead man, well, whyíd he have to look so damned suspicious anyway?
Finally, as an editorial at the Findlaw website pointed out, this new law raises property to a higher value than life. If a man approaches me with a weapon and demands my money, I give him the money. Hopelessly naÔve? Most robberies end there. Now, to protect my money, I have the right to shoot the robber. We should not have the right to kill to protect our property.
What bothers me most about this is the sense of immunity associated with this new law. Each time a police officer even discharges a weapon outside the firing rangeóeven if no one is hit by a single bulletóthere is an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the incident. I see no reason why it should be any different for citizens on the street, who have none of the training of law enforcement officers, who may, in fact, lack any training in the use of their weapon at all.
Laws similar to the one now in effect in Florida are being considered here in Pennsylvania. The truth is that we already have the right to defend ourselves from violent criminals. These new laws add nothing but uncertainty and risk, along with the fear that any tick or insignificant gesture might be construed as a threat to be met with deadly force. We have police for a reason; these laws go too far.