Where NC falls on self-defense laws

Greensboro News & RecordJuly 17, 2013 

The following editorial appeared in the Greensboro News & Record:

If George Zimmerman had shot and killed Trayvon Martin in North Carolina instead of in Florida, he still might have been acquitted of any criminal charge.

North Carolina’s self-defense laws are not exactly like Florida’s, but they’re close. Too close.

Concerns about the Zimmerman verdict have sparked calls for Florida legislators to reconsider the state’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law, which allows the use of deadly force in almost any situation in which a person claims to feel threatened with “imminent death or great bodily harm.”

The same is true in North Carolina under a law enacted in 2011 by the Republican legislature and signed by then-Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat.

The difference is that Florida’s law also authorizes deadly force “to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.” North Carolina law does not.

In Florida, an examination by the Tampa Bay Tribune this year found records of numerous killings under questionable circumstances that were not even prosecuted. Three examples:

• A 14-year-old boy shot and killed a man who was stealing a jet ski from a dock.

• Two men engaged in a shootout outside a nightclub. One was wounded and lying on the street when the second stood over him and fired the fatal shots.

• A fight between two men at a party ended when one retrieved a gun from his car, returned and fatally shot the other.

The newspaper’s investigation showed a steep increase in these kinds of “self-defense” cases in Florida, as well as an increase in permits to carry handguns.

“I think the law has an emboldening effect. All of a sudden, you’re a tough guy and can be aggressive,” George Kirkham, a professor emeritus at Florida State University and former police officer, told the Tribune.

North Carolina law grants a presumption of fear of death or bodily harm to a person who uses deadly force against an intruder in his home, workplace or car. That concept lies at the heart of traditional self-defense laws.

People also have the right under state law to protect themselves or others, with no duty to retreat, in other places, too. Using deadly force is justified by a reasonable belief that such force “is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm” – just like in Florida.

An important exception precludes a self-defense claim if it’s the killer who “initially provokes” the confrontation. In that case, the person killed might have been the one trying to defend himself.

Such cases can present difficult questions for police, prosecutors and, ultimately, juries to sort out. While North Carolina hasn’t seen a high-profile, emotionally charged case like the Trayvon Martin killing, it probably will. North Carolina’s law is enough like Florida’s that it could shield someone who uses deadly force in a situation where killing is not warranted.

Firing a gun should be a last resort, but it’s not if the law doesn’t impose a duty to retreat where retreat is an option.

A person’s home, workplace or car might be his last line of defense. In other places, a law that condones initial use of deadly force is too permissive.

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