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 Carolinas self-defense laws are not exactly like Floridas, but theyre close. Too close.
Concerns about the Zimmerman verdict have sparked calls for Florida legislators to reconsider the states 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 Floridas 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 newspapers 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, youre 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 its 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 hasnt seen a high-profile, emotionally charged case like the Trayvon Martin killing, it probably will. North Carolinas law is enough like Floridas 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 its not if the law doesnt impose a duty to retreat where retreat is an option.
A persons 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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