During a May 1 appearance on MSNBC's Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd, discredited gun "researcher" John Lott continued his whirlwind media tour in defense of the “Kill At Will” law (called “Stand Your Ground” by its proponents) that has been linked to the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. In his appearance, Lott reiterated many of the misleading claims he pushed in his April 25 op-ed for the New York Daily News defending the controversial law.
Lott began his appearance by suggesting that prior to the widespread codification of “Kill At Will,” victims of serious crimes had a duty to retreat from an attacker at his or her own peril. He told Todd, “You have to understand where the laws were before. Before people had to retreat as far as possible before they could go and act in self-defense.” Just because Lott repeats this falsehood over and over does not make it true. States that did require duty to retreat largely did so only under the narrow circumstance where the victim could do so safely. What Lott is attempting to do is to set his defense of “Stand Your Ground” upon the premise that these laws were enacted to fix an existing problem. His argument, however, is not credible because it seriously mischaracterizes basic legal principles of self-defense.
Even more astonishingly, Lott then claimed that Florida's “Stand Your Ground” law has nothing to do with the controversy surrounding Trayvon Martin's death.
What I will say is that no matter whose story is right, the Stand Your Ground law isn't relevant to the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case. If George Zimmerman is right and the wounds on the back of his head that he was on the ground, Trayvon Martin was on top of him beating him, there was no place for him to retreat. And so the old defense, even if you had the rule that you have to retreat as far as possible, he still would have been able to act in self-defense there. And if the other side is right that somehow George Zimmerman provoked the attack, attacked Martin to begin with, then he wouldn't be able to rely on the Stand Your Ground law to protect him in that case either.
Lott is really burying his head in the sand on this one. The Sanford Police Department cited the “Stand Your Ground” law as the reason that Zimmerman was not initially arrested. Before he became George Zimmerman's lawyer, attorney Mark O'Mara appeared on a Florida local news program and suggested that Zimmerman's actions may have been legally excusable under “Stand Your Ground.” Controversy surrounding the law has even led Republican governor Rick Scott to convene a taskforce to address concerns related to the 2005 legislation.
Lott is correct that Zimmerman may unsuccessfully assert “Stand Your Ground” at trial. Or it is possible that Zimmerman will not use the defense at all. Or that he will use it and prevail. Only time will tell. But to claim that “Kill At Will” has not been “relevant” to the Trayvon Martin controversy is an act of willful blindness that serves to draw attention away from the legitimate debate surrounding the self-defense law.
Building on this point, Lott then claims that “the Stand Your Ground law doesn't allow you to provoke an attack, doesn't allow you to throw the first punch, it doesn't allow you to go and shoot someone in the back. You have to pass this reasonable person test that you're in direct threat, serious injury or death was going to occur.” By suggesting that all shooters claiming immunity under “Stand Your Ground” face a thorough review into their actions, Lott is ignoring the fact that some of these shootings, even those that occur under dubious circumstances, are resolved without the shooter ever having to face a jury of his peers.
Take the case of Daniel Adkins, Jr. The unarmed 29-year-old man, with the mental capacity of a 13-year-old, was fatally shot on April 3 in an Arizona Taco Bell parking lot. Adkins reportedly was walking his dog when the unnamed shooter turned the corner of drive-thru, nearly hitting Adkins. While it is unclear who provoked the confrontation, it is reported that angry words were exchanged before the shooter chambered a bullet into his handgun and fatally shot Adkins in the chest. The shooter admitted that Adkins never touched him or his vehicle but claimed that Adkins “air swung” his hands towards the vehicle. Police were also told by the shooter that Adkins was armed with a 3-foot metal pipe, which has not been recovered.
Even though the shooter admitted to police that he did not think Adkins was going to kill him, only that he thought the man might “hurt” him, he has thus far escaped arrest and criminal prosecution. In recent years, the Arizona legislature has enacted two forms of expanded self-defense law. One statute governs the use of deadly force outside of the home, while the other law gives individuals in their vehicles even broader leeway to open fire. While both of these laws require the shooter to act reasonably (and shooters in occupied vehicles are presumed to have done so), without a criminal prosecution the reasonableness of the shooter's actions will never be determined in the way that Lott suggests.
Whether “Stand Your Ground” allows an individual to shoot someone in the back is not a resolved question as Lott states. In 2008 Florida resident James Wonder shot off duty U.S. Customs and Border Protection special agent Donald Pettit in the back of the head after a road rage confrontation. Wonder was arrested after a 24-hour manhunt and charged with premeditated murder. That charge was later reduced to manslaughter. The case has yet to go to trial, and Wonder's attorney has said he will ask for all charges to be dismissed under Florida's “Stand Your Ground” law.
“Kill At Will” has also been successfully used by a defendant who provoked a deadly confrontation. In a 2008 case, two gang members who participated in a shootout that left 15-year-old Michael Jackson dead escaped criminal conviction after the presiding judge ruled that Florida's self-defense law “would appear to allow a person to seek out an individual, provoke him into a confrontation, then shoot and kill him if he goes for his gun. Contrary to the state's assertion, it is very much like the Wild West.”
Lott finished his televised appearance by concluding that “there are, like, no problems” with “Stand Your Ground” laws. Given the national scrutiny these laws have come under since the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, it seems obvious that many disagree.