Civil Liberties

Latest Fatal ‘Stand Your Ground’ Shooting Prompts Calls to Amend Self-Defense Laws

When will the United States repeal ‘stand your ground’ laws to end impunity in our gun culture once and for all?

The latest fatal shooting of a 72-year-old white man who suffered from Alzheimer’s in rural northern Georgia has raised the ongoing debate about ‘stand your ground’ laws here in the United States.

The laws, which allow a homeowner to use deadly force in self-defense, gained notoriety following the death of Trayvon Martin.

In the latest incident, elderly victim Ronald Westbrook had been roaming around lost for hours before stumbling upon Joe Hendrix’s property and began to ring the doorbell and turning the door handle.  After Hendrix’ fiancé’ called 911 to report the intruder, Hendrix decided to take matters into his own hands, grabbing his gun and shooting into the darkness, ultimately killing Westbrook, Think Progress reported.

According to the country sheriff Hendrix admitted shooting Westbrook in his yard but said he was “certain” he and his fiancé felt threatened which he says justified the shooting.  In Georgia, the ‘shoot first’ provisions permits deadly force in the home, however it is not clear whether it will extend to the porch and yard as it does in other states. Moreover, it is unclear whether Georgia laws require a person to retreat from a perceived threat first as some other states require.

The incident is the latest in a string of fatal shootings by residents who say they feared their intruder.  Last month, a 19-year-old black woman was shot dead apparently while seeking help after a car accident in Michigan. Also in November, a man grabbed his pistol and shot and killed a 17-year-old boy for intruding on his property to steal some metal. Many of these cases have racial overtones, with white shooters and black victims. In last week's shooting in Georgia, both victim and shooter were white.

David Cook’s Times Free Press talked about the spiraling trend of using 'Stand Your Ground' laws to justify shooting innocents:

“Here in the Stand-Your-Ground South, we have lost our way, no longer able to distinguish one another as either enemy or neighbor. As if afflicted by a cultural Alzheimer's, we have forgotten so much, thus cursed to stumble through the dark night, firing bullets at one another.  We shoot kids pranking their principal. We shoot teenagers trying to steal scraps from our yard. We shoot an old man as he walks the neighborhood at night…We arm ourselves in outlandish ways that don't match the reality before us. We want guns in our car. We want guns in the bar. We'll arm our teachers. We'll arm our preacher,” he said.

According to the End Stand Your Ground movement, the problem with these laws is that there are many loopholes, which allow people to manipulate a scenario and allow them to cause great bodily harm and take another’s life.

“In the US, a legal citizen who is not a felon should have every right to bear arms and defend himself, family, or property, yet stand your ground offers an opportunity for the law to be abused or manipulated...It's time to end "stand your ground" and other such laws that undermine public safety, senselessly put people at risk, and enable the kind of tragedy we’ve witnessed in the case of Trayvon Martin," the website proclaims.

More concerning is that such self-defense laws provide greater protection to the actual shooter rather than the person that is shot, leaving the victim’s families with no recourse for justice and the death of their loved one occurring in vain.

It now remains to be seen whether Hendrix will be prosecuted for the fatal shooting or whether he will be able to argue that his actions were done in self-defense, as so many others before him have successful done.  Hopefully, this time round it will be the former and not the latter.

 

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.