Trayvon Martin and the so-called “Castle Doctrine” — How the NRA “got its way” in 2006

Many of the laws that got Trayvon Martin killed were passed in 2006 as a result of a huge push by the NRA. The following, from a piece by Rick Perlstein in The New Republic and published at the time, details much of this effort. It’s fascinating and prescient.

Note as you read the use of the phrase “Castle Doctrine” — a brilliant bit of false framing, a perversion of something in English common law that allows a person to defend himself in his home — a place from which there is no retreat. If you can’t retreat, you get to stand your ground; otherwise, you must retreat if you can.

The NRA (per)version of the Castle Doctrine, as Perlstein explains, applies a “no retreat needed” rule to any place a person has a “right to be.” License to kill, in other words, from wherever you happen to be standing.

Note also the indemnification of the shooter provided by these laws. The perfect one-two punch enabling the modern citizen-assassin.

Perlstein has added elsewhere that the “NRA got [these insane laws] passed around the country, with practically nobody noticing, and far too few Democrats objecting.” Too right.

Here’s a chunk from of his TNR piece. Classic Perlstein.

Enjoy (sorry, no online version; my emphasis and some reparagraphing):

Unnoticed by most of the national media, 2006 became the year the National Rifle Association got its way — and average citizens in almost a dozen states earned more leeway to shoot first and ask questions later than, in some circumstances, officers of the law.

The NRA calls it the “Castle Doctrine,” after a mellifluous passage in Book 4 in Blackstone’s Commentaries:

“And the law of England has so particular and tender a regard to the immunity of a man’s house, that it stiles it his castle, and will never suffer it to be violated with immunity.”

But what has been sold to state legislators as the restoration of a stolen patrimony — “the Castle Doctrine, in essence, simply places into law what is a fundamental right: self defense,” as an NRA newsletter puts it — is in actuality quite radical.

Existing statutes and court precedents impose a “duty to retreat” in the face of an intruder. Genuine self-defense is legal — always has been, always will. For over 200 years, distinguishing the one from the other was for police, prosecutors, juries, and judges to decide.

The new laws remove that discretion. In Arizona’s, passed in April [2006], a shooter “is presumed to be acting reasonably,” their target presumed to intend bodily harm, if the target “unlawfully and forcefully enters or entered the person’s dwelling, residence, or motor vehicle,” or merely “is engaged in an unlawful activity or is using the dwelling, residence, or occupied motor vehicle to further an unlawful activity.” Notes NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam, “if someone breaks into your dwelling, it’s reasonable to assume that person is in there to do you harm.”

But in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, and Oklahoma, the same immunities apply in any place you have a legal right to be.

Florida’s law also immunizes against the deaths of innocent bystanders — like the two men in a gunfight, Damon “Red Rock” Darling and Leroy “Yellowman” Larose, both of whom, according to the Miami Herald plan Castle Doctrine defenses once it is determined whose bullet it was that cut down Sherdavia Jenkins, nine, on her front porch in Liberty City. (Responds the NRAs Arulanandam: “Look, any law on the books will, you know — there are going to be people who are going to try to take advantage of the laws on the books.”)

The Castle Doctrine covers shooters who simply feel at risk. In Winter Haven, Florida, Justin Boyette meant no harm when he approached Michael Brady on Brady’s lawn, unarmed, possibly to shake his hand. Brady felt menaced and shot him anyway.

Brady feels deeply remorseful — but plans to attempt a Castle Doctrine defense nonetheless. But Castle Doctrine laws provide little guidance about what happens once cases reach the courts. An Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in Kentucky, Kimberly Henderson Baird, was so baffled as to how the new law applied to the case of a drug dealer beaten to death by one of his customers that she gave up and accepted a manslaughter plea. “If we couldn’t understand it ourselves, how are we going to get a jury to understand it?”

The victim’s sister, when she learned her brother’s killer would be eligible for parole in two months, noted Kentucky’s new law “basically says if anyone comes into your home, and if you have a grudge against them or anything, you can do this and get away with it.” She wonders whether the legislature “thought things through.”

Good question. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as soon as the 2006 legislative sessions opened, the NRA roared into action so quickly gun control groups were blindsided. Bills were introduced in Georgia and South Carolina January 10; Arizona’s was first read two days later; South Dakota’s was signed by February; by summer, ten new Castle Doctrine laws were in force. Texas is scheduled to introduce theirs in January 2007.

The NRA has described it as a train “chugging through the nation, reuniting Americans with the right to protect themselves and loved ones from danger.” Both Democrats and Republicans have been glad to grease the rails. Only one state legislator voted against Kentucky’s law; Georgia’s passed the state senate 26 to one. Democratic governors signed them in Louisiana, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Michigan.

Some of the laws specifically withhold immunity from those who shoot cops. Georgia’s, however, does not….

More on the history of the Castle Doctrine from Garrett Epps at The American Prospect.

Do these laws have that rotten ALEC stink all over them? Yeah, thought so too. More coming.


(To follow on Twitter or to send links: @Gaius_Publius)

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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