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Revive sensible gun laws

Posted: April 20, 2012 9:53 a.m.
Updated: April 23, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Supporters of the protests that followed the suspicious death of Trayvon Martin are raising a good question: What next?

Many have compared the shooting of the 17-year-old to the brutal 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the black Chicago teen who was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

The comparison is far from perfect. George Zimmerman, 28, the volunteer neighborhood watchman charged with second-degree murder in the shooting of the unarmed youth, claims self-defense. Till's murderers were enforcing the old South's willfully racist political and social system.

But as markers of their very different eras, the two cases have much in common. Till's death inspired Rosa Parks a few months later to refuse to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus. Her move helped to launch the Montgomery bus boycotts, a decade of protests and landmark civil rights legislation.

If the Trayvon Martin protesters are looking for a similar channel for their anger and energies, they have a perfectly appropriate target in "Stand Your Ground" laws.

That's the Florida law that Zimmerman cited, leading to his release by police without charges, a move that sparked protests by Martin's family and their supporters nationwide.

Florida's law says that a law-abiding person "who is attacked" has "no duty to retreat" and "has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm."

Two problems: The law is unnecessary and downright dangerous. Your basic right to defend yourself has been embedded for centuries in the "castle doctrine" (from the old dictum "An Englishman's home is his castle") in English common law and the statutes of most states.

The Stand Your Ground law, signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005, expanded that right to allow anyone, anywhere, to use deadly force against another person if he or she "reasonably believes" it is necessary to protect themselves.

Traditional castle law usually works just fine, as illustrated by the case of Homer Wright, an 80-year-old Chicago bar owner. He recently shot a home invader in the leg -- and ended up being arrested along with the suspect he wounded.

That's because it was illegal for Wright to own a gun after two previous weapons convictions in the early 1990s.

He posted bond and prosecutors later dropped the charges without further comment. He was relieved, he told reporters, yet also annoyed that police didn't return his gun.

Ironically, local experts speculated, Wright might not have been charged at all were it not for the extra scrutiny that the Martin tragedy has brought to self-defense cases. Better late than never, I say.

I'm not a zealot for banning all privately owned guns. I think, for example, two decades probably is enough good behavior to restore an 80-year-old entrepreneur's right to keep a firearm in his high-crime neighborhood.

Unfortunately, anything approaching reasonable, common-sense gun laws has become almost impossible against the zealotry from the other side.

Stand Your Ground laws, for example, are a great triumph of powerful lobbies like the National Rifle Association and their ultraconservative allies like the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. Lest they become victims of their own success, just about every victory they have seems to be followed by a push toward a new extreme.

As a result, the gun lobby pushes not only to pass extreme new laws like Stand Your Ground but also to roll back reasonable, common-sense reforms -- as when Virginia recently repealed its 19-year-old limit on personal handgun purchases to one per month.

"Common sense" is a widely overused term, yet it seems to me to suitably describe a limit of 12 new guns per year, especially to strike a blow against a criminal underground that gives law-abiding gun owners a bad name.

Bill Cosby made a good point when he recently said the debate over the killing of Trayvon Martin should be focused on guns, not race. There may be no more fitting memorial to the slain teen than to revive some common sense in our gun laws.

(Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail responses may be sent to cpage@tribune.com.)

 

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