President Barack Obama on Friday offered a deeply personal meditation on the shooting death of the black teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, one week after his acquittal by a Florida jury.
"When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," he said.
He also correctly called for a reconsideration of overly broad "stand your ground" laws, enacted by 20 states, including Kentucky, that remove the duty to retreat before using potentially deadly force.
Over the weekend, his concern was amplified by an unlikely voice: his former presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who recommended that the laws be reviewed.
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The laws should not just be reviewed — they should be repealed. The Kentucky legislature should get rid of the law when it meets next year or at least restore the duty to retreat requirement.
Kentuckians have always had the right to self-defense. State Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, noted that a 1931 Kentucky Court of Appeals case had already declared, "It is the tradition that a Kentuckian never runs. He does not have to." But passing the law in 2006 codified the exemption — and could result in confusing and problematic jury instructions, she said.
And Kentucky's law removed entirely the duty to retreat from confrontations, allowing violent responses even when non-violent options, such as simply leaving the scene, are available.
"Stand your ground laws are turning vigilantes into law-abiding citizens," State Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, said.
Indeed, an expansive study by two economists at Texas A&M University found that "the prospect of facing additional self-defense does not deter crime," instead finding that the states enacting the expanded self-defense laws suffered an 8 percent increase in homicides while the national average dropped.
All these laws really do is presume that victims are guilty until proven innocent. Reinstating the duty to retreat would not hurt public safety — it would improve it.
Existing protections for self-defense had a robust judicial precedent and were working as intended. These new laws offer a crude, counterproductive solution to a nonexistent problem.
Most of the laws were heavily lobbied by the National Rifle Association and pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, from 2005 to 2006 during rewrites of state penal codes.
The NRA leadership's involvement, decidedly at odds with its average member who wants saner laws, is hard to square with any of its purported goals — other than the enrichment of the gun manufacturers who sit on its board.
When did unquestioning deference to the moral rectitude of the gun users over the gunned-down become part of the Second Amendment?
The "shoot first, ask later" mentality embodied by these laws is not just flawed because of the increased violence they promote but also because of the fear and doubt they cast on our fellow citizens.
Imposing and incentivizing a worldview where every stranger is a lurking threat, whether real or imaginary, is deeply harmful to the trust that is the basis for civil society. The laws seek to affix a troubling asterisk on "the golden rule" dictum that has served this country so well.
As much as the NRA leadership may want it, an arms race among citizens is not public safety — it is mutually assured destruction.