EDITORIAL: Pa. should repeal 'stand your ground' law

York Dispatch Editorial Board

It may not be on the order of Sisyphus, but state Sen. Steven Santarsiero has set himself up for what will no doubt an uphill battle.

The Bucks County Democrat told Fox 43 News that he plans to introduce legislation repealing Pennsylvania’s “stand your ground” law. The legislation — like that in some 25 other states where similar measures are on the books — allows individuals to use deadly force when acting in self-defense.

The problem, say critics like Santarsiero, is that the law doesn’t just allow the use of deadly force, it encourages it.

The 2012 slaying of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida by an off-duty Neighborhood Watch volunteer is but the most notorious in a string of questionable shootings in which seemingly trigger-happy assailants sought to hide behind this dubious legal protection.

It is far from the lone example. Florida has also seen the law used to justify fatal shootings following an argument over a parking space and a fight over loud phone use in a movie theater. (Thankfully, jurors in these two cases, demonstrating more common sense than lawmakers, found the gunmen guilty.)

In fact, Santarsiero cites a 2017 study done in Florida that found a 32% increase in firearm-related deaths following enactment of the law.

“We have a gun violence epidemic in Pennsylvania, as we do throughout the rest of the country," Santarsiero said. “I think we as a Legislature need to be looking at reasonable measures we can take to help curb that epidemic.”

Epidemic is hardly overstating it. Local headlines are routinely filled with shootings and the injuries and fatalities they cause. In 2017, the latest year for which statistics are available, York County lost more than one resident a week to gun violence, according to livestories.com.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show Pennsylvania saw 1,636 firearm-related fatalities in 2017, about 12.5 per 100,000 residents, which is above the national average.

Of additional concern: The shootings and fatalities — locally, statewide and nationally — disproportionately affect populations of color.

Such statistics have prompted Santarsiero — who co-chairs the legislature’s bicameral PA SAFE Caucus, which strives to reduce gun violence — to take the lead on a number of gun-safety proposals. He has sponsored or co-sponsored bills that would mandate safer storage of guns, require universal background checks for firearm purchases and ban the sale of military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. 

All badly needed measures. And all currently gathering dust in the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee.

“The vast majority of Pennsylvanians are demanding action to address the epidemic of gun violence,” Santarsiero said following the committee’s September hearings on gun violence and related issues. “Pennsylvanians are frustrated that common-sense gun violence-prevention bills have not been acted on.”

Santarsiero and his allies must tap that frustration. Public opinion is on their side; even gun owners are overwhelmingly in favor of sensible measures such as universal background checks and requiring first-time firearms buyers to pass a safety test.

Republican recalcitrance has too often been the roadblock to progress, both statewide and nationally. Pubic support can’t just be shared in opinion polls; it must be used to hold elected officials accountable.

Repealing Pennsylvania’s “stand your ground” law would be a welcome way of breaking the Judiciary Committee logjam.