MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

July 22, 2013

Legislator to review state's 'stand your ground' law

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — It’s been seven years since the Oklahoma Legislature overwhelmingly passed a measure that expanded a person’s right to defend themselves with deadly force when threatened or attacked.

But a state lawmaker says it’s time to re-open public dialogue about the Stand Your Ground law and other legislation that has expanded gun rights in the state following the acquittal of a Florida man who was charged with murder in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.

Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, said he plans to launch a legislative study in November to review Oklahoma’s Stand Your Ground and open carry laws. Shelton stopped short of saying he wants to repeal the statutes and said he will invite gun advocates as well as those who oppose the expansion of gun rights.

“I’m going into this with an open mind. I’m hoping to get people on both sides to sit down and have a conversation,” Shelton said. “If a piece of legislation comes out of that interim study, it will be thoughtful. We need to know where that line is.”

A legislative supporter of Stand Your Ground, Rep. Steve Vaughn, R-Ponca City, said Shelton may be standing alone in his attempt to re-open debate on the issue.

“You have a right to defend yourself,” said Vaughn, author of a 2010 amendment that expanded Stand Your Ground’s deadly force guidelines to the workplace. He said there is no legislative support for watering down the statute’s self-defense rights.

“My bill is not judge, jury and executioner. My bill was to give you something to stand with,” Vaughn said.

More than 30 states have laws similar to Oklahoma’s Stand Your Ground law, which was patterned after legislation adopted in Florida in 2005. The law clarified self-defense rights and expanded the right to protect yourself against attack in your own home to other places, including someone else’s home, a vehicle or a street corner.

The law removed a duty on the part of citizens to retreat in the face of an attack and authorized them to use force, even deadly force, to protect themselves when they believe they are in danger in any place they have a legal right to. It provides immunity from criminal charges and civil liability to a shooter.

Stand Your Ground statutes have come under new scrutiny following the July 13 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black high school student, in Sanford, Fla.

Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch coordinator in a gated community where Martin was temporarily living when he observed Martin walking through the community. Zimmerman exited his car and followed Martin, resulting in a violent encounter that ended when Zimmerman fatally shot the unarmed teen.

Shelton, who is black, said residents of his community have been expressing concern about gun violence long before the Florida case became national news

“Trayvon Martin’s case sure didn’t start the conversation in my community about this. These are conversations always held in my community at all times,” Shelton said. He said supporters of laws like Stand Your Ground may not understand the issues facing inner-city neighborhoods like his.

“We come from different areas. We come from different cultures. I think it’s important that everybody understands both sides of it,” Shelton said.

The verdict in the Zimmerman case has been condemned by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C., which has also worked against the adoption of Stand Your Ground laws in Oklahoma and elsewhere. John Lowy, legal director of the Brady Center, said he believes Oklahoma’s law should be repealed.

“Stand Your Ground was a very bad solution to a non-existent problem,” Lowy said. “There’s always been a right of self-defense in the law. There was no reason for any state to change the time-honored principles of self-defense that have adequately protected people from across the country for decades.”

He said Stand Your Ground laws make it harder for law enforcement authorities to enforce criminal statutes and sometimes allows offenders to go free.

“In some cases it emboldens people to engage in acts of violence that they otherwise would not do,” Lowy said. “There’s no question that George Zimmerman should not have gotten out of his car that night and should not have followed Trayvon Martin. The reason he did is that he had a loaded gun that night and was willing to use it.”

The executive director of the Oklahoma Rifle Association, which supports Stand Your Ground, said the shooting in Florida should not be used as an excuse to roll back self-defense rights.

“I’m biased I guess,” said Charles Smith of Yukon. “But we’ve heard all this slogan about ‘Justice for Trayvon.’ Well, Trayvon got justice. This is not about justice. This is about retribution.”

Smith, whose 1,500-member organization has been Oklahoma’s National Rifle Association affiliate since 1927, said Stand Your Ground is a vital state law that spells out important self-defense rights and reinforces the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. He said he doubts the Legislature would seriously consider its repeal.

“I think our legislators are much too wise to go there,” he said.

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