Monday, March 26, 2012

Standing on shaky ground:
Jeb Bush and the consequences of bad law

OF all the voices aired in the furious and still-building debate over the death of Trayvon Martin, the one we’ve scarcely heard until now has been that of John Ellis (Jeb) Bush, the once Florida governor who signed the law that, given its frightening breadth of possible application, certainly helped make Trayvon’s death possible.

But in his first defenses of the Stand Your Ground law, Jeb Bush does more than reveal the law’s shortcomings as sound law. The measure’s apparent uselessness as a law calls into question nothing less than Bush’s judgment as a governor, and, if he ever goes in that direction, his soundness as a presidential contender.

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As governor, Bush signed Florida Statute 776-012 into law in Oct. 1, April 2005. “It’s common sense to allow people to defend themselves,” he said then. “When you’re in a position where you’re being threatened, there’s a life-threatening situation, to have to retreat and put yourself in a very precarious situation … you know, defies common sense.”

Here’s the opening of the law’s language:

776.012 Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:

(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony ...

(Reading this, a striking parallel of rationale rears up: Is there any foundational difference between the language of this law and the broader pretext for aggression against the Republic of Iraq, evangelized and defended by Jeb Bush’s brother, George Herbert Walker Bush, former president of the United States?

Just sayin’.)

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Since 2005, the law’s application has seen a multitude of tragedies. The St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Bay Times reported that, five years after its passage, the Stand Your Ground defense had been implicated in 93 cases that resulted in 65 deaths statewide. It's certainly above that now.

Since the Trayvon Martin incident, Bush has defended the law’s intention, if not its application by citizens like George Michael Zimmerman, the neighborhood-watch captain wannabe who shot Trayvon in the chest on Feb. 26.

“Applied properly, I support the law,” he told the Dallas Morning News on March 23.

And to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Bush attempted to sever any connection between Florida’s law and what happened the night of Feb. 26. “This law does not apply to this particular circumstance,” he said. “’Stand Your Ground’ means ‘stand your ground.’ It doesn’t mean ‘chase after somebody who’s turned their back.’”

But for Floridians, and especially those victimized by the law’s permissions, that amounts to a distinction without a difference. When a law is based on the perception of a threat, however momentary or impulsive that perception might be, actions taken in the name of self-defense have too much latitude — including the opportunity to be actions taken proactively, rather than reactively.

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IT’D BE one thing if Florida’s SYG law was based on, say, the protection of one’s home. But the law isn’t domicile-specific. This isn’t another “castle doctrine” law, based on the principle derived from English common law and stating, finally, that a man’s or woman’s home is his or her castle, and defendable as such.

Laws of self-defense of one’s life, family and property have been on the books in Florida for years, just like they are, to one degree or another, in every state in the country. The opening 44 words of the bill Bush signed into law in 2005 are almost verbatim with those of justifiable-use-of-force state statutes going back to at least 1998.

Under those pre-SYG statutes, people in Florida were compelled to use every means possible short of deadly force to extricate themselves from a dangerous situation.

There’d have been no need for Stand Your Ground in Florida, no reason to change the existing law if there hadn’t been some new or enhanced threat (or perception of a threat) that Stand Your Ground was intended to correct. A law without an objective is a bad law.

“There was no one in Florida who needed this law,” said Florida State Sen. Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor, to Ed Schultz on MSNBC, on Monday.

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Which isn’t to say someone didn’t want this law — or the other similar laws in at least 22 other states, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The identity of that someone, or something, is evident in photos of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signing the bill into law. On his right side is Marion P. Hammer, a top lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, which lobbied legislators hard and long to get Florida’s SYG legislation through the State Senate and onto the governor’s desk. And into the lives of Floridians, for worse and for worse.

“There was no one in Florida who claimed that they’d been wrongfully charged … or wrongly convicted and needed the protection,” Gelber said. “This [SYG] was done solely because the NRA asked the legislature to do it, and they have a lot of sway with the legislature …”

William Meggs, state attorney for the 2nd Judicial Circuit in Tallahassee, told Reuters that "[b]asically it's a law that fixed something that wasn't broken, and then it created a lot of problems."

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WHATEVER his high-minded intentions, Jeb Bush’s signing of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law — the law that became a national template — has ushered into Florida and beyond a renascent cowboy mentality, a meme of shoot-first-ask-questions-never; a climate of dangerous permission, and of the potential for a settling of scores real and imagined, of deep xenophobic tendencies actualized under the elastic rubric of self-defense.

It transports the ethos of frontier Dodge City to the modern-day streets and communities of the Sunshine State, and elsewhere. And it undermines, however marginally, whatever prospects for the presidency Jeb Bush may have entertained, most likely in 2016.

The scope of the law and its consequences are bad enough. What’s worse, what’s more politically indefensible is the fact that the Florida SYG law was unnecessary, that it became a law at the request of a powerful pro-gun lobby and its deep-pocketed proxies, and through the energies of that lobby’s philosophical toadies in the legislature. And almost no one else.

Long before any presidential aspirations are formally announced, if that ever happens, Jeb Bush already faces the burdensome label of being in the pocket of at least one very special interest. It’s an association with literally fatal consequences, one that yielded a law that, like its successors, gives our tribal, atavlstic aspect free rein — calling on the worst that’s within us, instead of the best.

Image credits: Jeb Bush: via MSNBC. Jeb Bush signature: Wikipedia. George Zimmerman: Orange Country Jail/Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Marion Hammer: Florida Attorney General's Office via Trayvon Martin: The Martin Family.

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