Justifiable homicide law creates debate about violence

By Tyler Sprinkle – tsprinkl@unca.edu – Contributor

A recent university study indicates homicide rates rise as lawmakers loosen their grip on self-defense laws, causing accusations and disagreements on which laws better protect citizens.

 

James Harvey, a Black Mountain resident, said shootings occur during crimes due to the lack of knowledge of who has a weapon in the situation.

 

“Individuals are less likely to commit crimes knowing their victims could be armed,” Harvey said. “No one wants to get shot or hurt.”

 

A jury convicted Michael Morgan of murdering Harvey’s uncle, Tony Harvey, nearly 20 years ago. Since serving his seven-year sentence in prison, Morgan ran for office in the state legislature and Congress.

 

“We have proof of him voting while in prison, which is supposed to be against the law,” Harvey said. “In the end, I know our system has major flaws in it so no matter what laws pass, will they work? Only time and experience will tell.”

 

In 2005, Florida initiated the push for the modern version of the English

Castle Doctrine, defined today as, “stand your ground.” The law justifies a person using deadly force if they feel threatened.

 

According to a study done by Mark Hoekstra, a Texas A&M economist, homicide rates increased in the 23 states that adopted the law.

 

Hoekstra and his colleagues analyzed data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports from 2000-2010. The divergence in crime during the time period of adopting the new laws to present day surpasses any at the individual state level in more than 40 years.

 

“If you would’ve seen this increase in absence of the law, then obviously we would be wrong,” Hoekstra said. “To see if that is the problem, we go back to previous decades to see if we would have seen the same 8 percent increase, and the answer is no.”

 

Results of their study conclude general crime such as burglary, robbery or aggravated assault was not deterred and the net percentage of recorded homicides increased by 8 percent.

 

Hoekstra examines how police report deaths, which can vary for each state.

 

“There’s a small category called justifiable homicides,” Hoekstra said. “We tried to look at that a little bit, but the bottom line is there aren’t that many reported.”

 

Local critics of “stand your ground” claim the initial self-defense laws established protect citizens to an accepting extent.

 

“Our laws, the duty to retreat, are prudent,” said Dave Romick, an Asheville police sergeant. “Those are wise and good laws.”

 

The states that adopted “stand your ground” law exclude North Carolina. In chapter 14 of a N.C. state bill passed in 2011, a person is not justified in using deadly force in an attack, unless the intruder forcefully enters the victim’s home, motor vehicle or workplace.

 

Romick, with 25 years experience with the Asheville Polive Department, perceives deadly force as an extreme reaction in a physical altercation.

 

“You have the right to defend yourself,” Romick said. “If you are going to use deadly force, you better damn well be certain you can testify.”

 

The Trayvon Martin case in Florida illustrates how “stand your ground” operates. The jury found justification for George Zimmerman using lethal force in a physical fight between him and 17-year-old Martin.

 

“My opinion is that law justifies people to overreact,” said Darin Waters, visiting assistant professor at UNC Asheville. “People just rage. We live in that kind of stressful society and this just does not help people in that kind of situation.”

 

The Urban News published an article by Waters last February in response to the Trayvon Martin case sympathizing with African-Americans’ frustration with the criminal justice system. A year later, Waters said he also disagrees with concealed weapons law.

 

“I have problem with it because it makes it easier to make it be the first thing you go to in a heated argument,” Waters said. “I hate the gun culture in this country. It is a very violent country and those kind of laws contribute to more violence.”

 

Texas A&M results found only 200-300 homicides a year nationwide are reported as justified, compared to the 14,000 total.

 

“At the end of the day, we have more dead people and the dead people are classified as criminal homicides,” Hoekstra said. “Whether or not police are reporting those correctly is hard to say.”

 

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