EDITORIAL: 'Stand your ground' doesn't stand common-sense test

York Dispatch Editorial Board
In this Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, file photo, George Zimmerman, acquitted in the high-profile killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, listens in court, in Sanford, Fla., during his hearing. The pistol former neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman used in the fatal shooting of Martin is going up for auction online. The auction begins Thursday, May 12, 2016, at 11 a.m. EDT and the bidding starts at $5,000. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Joe Burbank)

Can we agree that shoplifting is not a crime that warrants the death penalty?

Can we likewise concur that illegally parking in a handicapped space should not lead to capital punishment?

How about walking along a sidewalk minding your own business?

Then there should be little argument that so-called “stand your ground” laws, which allow armed citizens to shoot and kill assailants if they feel threatened, are unnecessary invitations to vigilante homicide and need to be rescinded.

The latest example comes from — where else? — Florida, home of one of the first and most strict “stand your ground” laws in the country.

Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn is facing murder charges after shooting a man who tried to swipe a small hatchet from Dunn’s Army and Navy surplus store on Oct. 3. Dunn said the shoplifter was threatening him with the hatchet, so he opened fire.

A surveillance video of the shooting tells a very different story. Dunn holds onto the shoplifter’s shirtsleeve, preventing him from fleeing, then shoots him at close range. The 50-year-old man died almost immediately.

The scenario mirrors a July 19 incident in Clearwater, Florida, where a man named Michael Drejka berated a woman in the passenger’s seat of a car parked in a convenience store’s handicapped space. When the woman’s boyfriend, 28-year-old Markeis McGlockton, emerged from the store, confronted Drejka and shoved him to the ground, Drejka shot the man twice in the chest. He stumbled back into the convenience store and fell dead at the feet of his 5-year-old son.

In both cases, the white gunmen cited the “stand your ground” law in fatally shooting unarmed black men.

The death of another unarmed black man — in fact, not yet legally a man; he was three weeks past his 17th birthday — brought the lunacy of “stand your ground” laws to the public consciousness six years ago. Trayvon Martin was doing nothing more suspicious than walking home from a 7-11 with a bag of newly purchased Skittles in February 2012 when he was accosted and subsequently shot to death in Sanford, Florida, by neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman.

Florida isn’t the only state with “stand your ground” laws on the books. Utah’s law is being debated after a shooting earlier this month at a Starbucks. And Pennsylvania is among some two dozen other states that have similar laws.

“Stand your ground” laws were sold as a protection for would-be victims who are threatened and have no safe recourse. But they are too often used as shields for those who, like Dunn, take the law into their own hands, or others, like Drejka and Zimmerman, who instigate confrontations, then allegedly become fearful when their target attempts to fight back, and resort to deadly force.

It is a coward’s law that protects cowardly acts.

Still, there has been little in the way of consequences for the gunmen and, thus, little to dissuade continued abuse of the law.

Zimmerman, infamously, was acquitted. In Clearwater, County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri this summer refused to charge Drejka, instead placing blame on the victim: “Markeis wouldn’t be dead if Markeis didn’t slam this guy to the ground.” You’re a profile in empathy, sheriff.

Fortunately, the local state attorney overruled Gualtieri and brought charges against Drejka. Even more encouraging, a grand jury evidently believed their eyes, rather than Dunn’s flimsy “stand your ground” excuse, and charged him with second-degree murder.

These welcome efforts to bring charges are implicit acknowledgement that Florida’s “stand your ground” laws are being abused.

It’s one thing to bring to justice the state-backed vigilantes the law has created. Even better would be to bring justice to those who have died at their hands, relief to those who continue to be threatened by the emboldened, and a modicum of common sense to state lawbooks. To achieve these goals, “stand your ground” laws must be rescinded.