In early September, George Zimmerman made headlines yet again when his estranged wife, Shellie, contacted the police during a potential incident of domestic violence. In a call to 911, Shellie Zimmerman claimed George was threatening her and her father with a gun after a confrontation over the Zimmermans’ marital separation grew heated. While charges have not been filed against George, this latest episode in the Zimmerman saga begs a hypothetical question – if roles were reversed and Shellie had been the party threatening George with a firearm, could she invoke Florida’s now-infamous Stand Your Ground law if she faced criminal charges?
In the wake of George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law drew criticism and public outcry. Supporters attempted to defend the law and, in many cases, invoked the rights of female victims of violence as justification. In an interview with NPR, Florida State Representative Dennis Baxley, one of the sponsors of the Stand Your Ground law, claimed that Stand Your Ground was intended to protect from prosecution “a victim of a violent attack [who] has seconds to decide if they want to live or they want to die or they want to be a victim of violence, such as rape or a beating.” Florida Senator Don Gaetz and Representative Matt Gaetz (father and son) reiterated this position in an op-ed piece, claiming “calls to repeal ‘Stand Your Ground’ are anti-woman. Imposing a duty-to-flee places the safety of the rapist above a woman’s own life.”
Indeed, protecting the rights of women victims of violence was a theme during the initial debates over Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, passed in 2005. Arguing in favor of the law, Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association (NRA), stated, “you can’t expect a victim to wait and ask, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Criminal, are you going to rape me and kill me?’”
Despite supporters’ claims that Stand Your Ground helps protect women, the reality is that this law fails to work on behalf of many survivors of violence. Running counter to the rhetoric used by Baxley, the Gaetzes, and Hammer, the vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults are committed by persons known to the victim – not violent strangers accosting a person walking alone on a dark street. Based on a “presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm,” Florida’s Stand Your Ground law exempts this presumption if “the person against whom the defensive force is used has the right to be in…the dwelling, residence, or vehicle.” Thus, it follows that if a perpetrator attempts to commit a rape within the confines of his own home, Stand Your Ground would not be available to a victim who uses deadly force against him. Since 2005, only two cases in which defendants utilized a Stand Your Ground defense involved alleged sexual assaults; the cases ended in a plea bargain and a guilty verdict.
Stand Your Ground also offers little help to survivors of domestic violence. Reported by Charles Blow, one of the columnists who initially broke the Trayvon Martin story, out of 235 cases in Florida in which defendants used the Stand Your Ground law in defense, “only 33 of them were domestic disputes or arguments, and…in most of those cases men invoked the law, not women.”
As various sources and commentators noted, the case of Marissa Alexander elucidates the failure of the Stand Your Ground law to protect women who fight back against their abusers. Alexander found herself under arrest for firing a warning shot at a wall when her husband – who had a documented history of abuse – allegedly threatened to kill her. In 2012, a jury convicted Alexander of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after the trial judge refused to let Alexander claim self-defense under Stand Your Ground. Alexander was sentenced to twenty years in prison.
In language, as well as in practice, Stand Your Ground does not seem to apply to certain incidents of domestic violence. The law explicitly exempts coverage where “there is not an injunction for protection from domestic violence.” Therefore, an individual facing domestic abuse for the first time would not have Stand Your Ground as an available defense were she to use deadly force to protect herself.
Violence against women is a problem that continues to plague America. Nearly twenty women per hour are raped or sexually assaulted, and approximately three women are killed every day by intimate partners. Legal and societal changes are essential to stop this wave of gender-based violence. Laws like Florida’s Stand Your Ground, however, are not the solution.
What are your thoughts? Are strengthened self-defense laws the way to go in combating gender-based violence? Do harsher punishment for perpetrators deter such violence? Join the conversation in the comments section below.