The Shoot-First State

Sunday, May 1, 2005

LET'S SAY that you're behind the wheel and think someone wants to carjack your automobile and cause you bodily harm. Or suppose you get into a dispute with another shopper over a place in the supermarket's checkout line, and the shopper's aggressive behavior causes you to fear imminent peril. In both cases, you could -- and common sense suggests that you should -- retreat or back away from the scene if it can be done safely. But in Florida under a measure passed overwhelmingly by the state legislature last week, you would no longer have a duty to escape or retreat before resorting to the use of deadly force. The bill, signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Jeb Bush (R), will allow people in Florida -- without fear of criminal prosecution or civil action -- to shoot, stab or pummel to death anyone who causes them to fear for their lives outside of their homes, on the street, or in their cars or businesses. It's called the "Castle Doctrine," meaning your body, not just your home, is your castle and that you can stand your ground and meet force with force virtually anywhere if you reasonably believe injury or death might occur. A retired police officer in St. Petersburg, writing in the St. Petersburg Times, described the legislature's bill as the "citizens' right to shoot others on the street if they feel threatened" and asked, "Are they nuts?" That, we cannot answer.

We do, however, recognize a bad law when we see one, and any measure that increases the possibility of innocent people being killed or injured is a threat to public safety and does not belong on the books. This law, first of its kind in the nation, encourages people to be quick with guns, knives or fists. That's scary. According to the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence Inc., there are already "6 to 7 million untrained gun owners in Florida."

Telling them that they need only feel threatened in a park or a hospital or a stadium

or a domestic dispute to start pulling the trigger is tantamount to turning Florida into

Dodge City.

The prospect of the Wild West coming to Florida probably gladdens the heart of the National Rifle Association, which spawned the bill. But it should spread fear in the halls of other statehouses where the NRA plans to peddle similar legislation over the next year. The Florida law is the "first step of a multi-state strategy," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said in an interview with the Post's Manuel Roig-Franzia, making it clear that the NRA believes it has a favorable political climate, especially in the South and the Midwest, in which to market its macho bill. Weapons sellers couldn't be happier. More work for morticians, too. And more danger on the nation's streets.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company