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Florida's "Shoot First" Law Reflects Crazy Ideology of Preemption

Crossing the state line into Florida on I-75, one is greeted by a billboard reading, "Visitor Warning. Florida residents can use deadly force. Please be careful." Erected by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the sign is a reference to the fact that, for the last year and a half, Floridians have been allowed by law to shoot anyone they want.

Well, not just anyone. A citizen can use deadly force only if, in the words of the law, he or she "believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or to another person or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony." So breathe a sigh of relief. As long as you don't give anyone a reason to feel threatened, you're perfectly safe.

The "stand your ground" law - called the "shoot first" law by opponents - passed the Florida legislature by a wide margin. Since it went into effect, similar laws have been passed in at least 14 other states and are being considered in many more.

The law allows someone attacked, even in a public place, to "stand his or her ground" - and to use deadly force if he or she feels it necessary. It revokes a legal requirement to try to avoid conflict. Thus the case of the West Palm Beach cab driver who shot and killed a drunken passenger in an altercation after dropping him off.

In the eminently reasonable words of the foreman of the deadlocked jury, the cab driver "had a lot of chances to retreat and to avoid an escalation. He could have just gotten in his cab and left. The thing could have been avoided, and a man's life would have been saved".

Brooklyn Law School professor Anthony J Sebok told The New York Times that the central innovation of the law is not its elimination of the duty to retreat but the expansion of the right to shoot intruders (intruders into "any… place where [the shooter] has a right to be") who pose no threat to the shooter's safety. "In effect," Sebok told the Times, "the law allows citizens to kill other citizens in defence of property."

Or in defence of trash. Jason Rosenbloom of Clearwater was wounded by his neighbor, Kenneth Allen, who had filed a complaint with local authorities about Rosenbloom leaving eight bags of trash on the curb instead of the regulation six. After a heated exchange, Allen - a retired Virginia police officer - shot Rosenbloom twice; according to Rosenbloom, Allen went back into his house to get the gun and shot Rosenbloom even after he put his hands up. According to Allen, Rosenbloom had his foot in the door and was trying to rush into his house.

Whichever man is to be believed, it is hard to see what in such a circumstance could have necessitated deadly force. But the new law does away with such pesky questions. Allen was not charged. After all, according to him, he felt threatened.

Plus, Allen fulfilled the only requirement of the law: he was not engaged in anything unlawful at the time he shot his neighbor; in other words, he was a law-abiding citizen. This is a phrase that came up a lot during the debate - such as it was - over the passing of the law. The sponsor of the original bill, Rep Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), said: "What this does is empower law-abiding citizens to stop violent crime in its tracks."

But it was Wayne LaPierre, executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, which is behind the Florida bill and its brethren in other states, who articulated the true ethos of the Florida bill most plainly. "Good people make good decisions," he said. "That's why they're good people. If you're going to empower someone, empower the crime victim."

I know a lot of incredibly good people who make bad decisions on a daily basis; I know even more good people I wouldn't trust with a gun. But it's clear that these laws really aren't about gun rights at all. They're about the practical application of a moral philosophy of good and evil: There are good people and bad people in the world, and the way to deal with the bad people is to arm the good people to the teeth.

If this good people/bad people philosophy sounds familiar, it's because it's been the basis for most of the rhetoric, and a great deal of the policy decisions, made by the United States government in the last six and a half years. Florida's "shoot first" law may be the most audacious local example of it, but that's just because no one had the temerity until recently to write good and evil into the law.

Essentially, what Florida judges and juries considering shooting cases now have to decide is whether the shooter is a good (the code is "law-abiding") or bad person. If a good person shoots someone, it's okay. If a bad person shoots someone, it's not.

You might call that a double standard, but the current White House calls it common sense. That's why laws in general have seemed a little, well, irrelevant these days. The president is a good man with good intentions; if a law says he can't do something, it can't be a very good law, now can it?

Indeed, Bush has attached signing statements to more than 750 laws enacted by Congress since he took office, statements that say he has the right to disregard these laws when he sees fit. The image, long pushed by Bush and his handlers, is that the president is a good, simple man, and good, simple men simply don't do bad things.

This philosophy underpins many of Bush's rather tortured responses to tough questions. Confronted with the findings of the 9/11 commission, that a great number of warnings about the 2001 terrorist attacks crossed his desk, Bush repeatedly asserted that if he had had the information, he would have stopped the attack. Another way to put that is, since he didn't stop the attack, he couldn't have had the information. Because, to quote LaPierre, "Good people make good decisions."

Like Bush's signing statements, the shoot-first laws are a wholesale rejection of law itself, a step toward replacing a nation of laws with a nation of value judgments; a nation in which whoever is currently considered "good" gets a free pass.

And if you subscribe to the ideology of good and evil, as our government does, you have to be in constant war. There's no way around it. Bad people, to take the logical inverse of LaPierre's philosophy, do bad things. It's in their nature; they can do nothing else. War against evil has no end; its only end is when all the bad people are dead.

All this wreaks havoc on us as human beings. When the law is less important than the perceived nature of the person breaking it, perception becomes everything, and we all become complicit; we all become, in essence, informants. What, exactly, will be the standards for judging someone's goodness?

The subjugation of law to ideology was to be expected, given our current government's moral certitude. I recall a hypothetical that was often posed in debates over the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq: What if, we asked, your neighbour came over and shot you simply because he believed you were a threat?

Advocates of the war protested that that was different; the two situations couldn't even be compared. But the ideology of good versus evil subsumes everything, and all politics is local - and getting closer and closer to the place you're standing right now, perhaps unwittingly making some law-abiding citizen with a gun feel threatened.

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