The Florida self-defense law keeping the killer of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin free is not just a quirk. Pennsylvania's law is strikingly similar.
The stand-your-ground legislation, also referred to as the Castle Doctrine, allows citizens to use force, including deadly force, against an attacker in their home or any place they have a legal right to be.
Florida adopted the law seven years ago, and Pennsylvania passed the similar law in June 2011.
The breadth of the Florida law has created a firestorm of debate since the Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon, a 17-year-old black high school student from Miami.
Trayvon was shot and killed by a crime watch volunteer while walking in a neighborhood of Sanford, Fla., near Orlando.
George Zimmerman, 28, has told police he shot Trayvon in self-defense; he has not been arrested or charged in the shooting.
A fundamental change in Pennsylvania’s self-defense law was that it no longer requires a homeowner or an average citizen in almost any location to retreat from an attacker. If there is a threat, violence can be the first response.
The law also protects a person who acts in self-defense from civil lawsuits by an attacker or attacker’s family.
There are 21 laws like this that have been adopted across the nation in recent years.
In many states, including Pennsylvania and Florida, the National Rifle Association campaigned for the law’s passage.
Rep. Jake Wheatley, a Democrat who represents a large portion of the City of Pittsburgh, said he argued for the law because it meant people who felt they were in danger didn't have to stop to question whether to retreat or whether they might be sued later.
“In the perfect world, we wouldn’t have citizens protecting themselves because there is law enforcement for that,” he said. “But the real situation is that a lot of black and poor neighborhoods lack that safety and many people in these communities feel they are under seige.”
Critics said the law leads to more violence.
“I understand your home is your castle,” said Falk Foundation President Kerry O’Donnell, whose organization aims to prevent gun violence through changes in public policy. “But this cannot be the standard out in public, not at the grocery store, not on the sidewalk. That’s outrageous.”
Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat representing Squirrel Hill, said he tried to block the law that he calls the “shoot first” legislation.
“It creates an enormous amount of ambiguity and opportunity for situations where you can have vigilantism,” he said. “It brings back a kind of Wild West mentality to the streets of our community.”
Wheatley said he consulted with the State House Judiciary Committee and the Pittsburgh Police Department after he heard about Trayvon's case. He wanted to know how it would have been handled in Pennsylvania.
He learned that the self-defense laws in Pennsylvania and Florida are practically the same.
However, Committee Counsel David McGlaughlin said in a statement Wednesday that a similar scenario in Pennsylvania would likely lead to the shooter being arrested.
“This is because while the duty to retreat in a self-defense scenario has been weakened by a recent legislative enactment, the duty still applies to a degree,” he wrote.
In Pennsylvania, McGlaughlin wrote, a person using deadly force and claiming self-defense must meet certain standards. The person cannot be involved in anything illegal or illegally possess a weapon; he or she must use force only when there is reasonable belief that death or serious injury is imminent; and the person against whom the force is used must have displayed or used a weapon capable of lethal use.
Trayvon was unarmed, and reports said Zimmerman was told by police to stay in his car, but instead pursued the teenager.
Another difference is in the police handling of the case, Rep. Wheatley said. Pittsburgh police told the politician the teenager’s shooting death would have been treated as a crime before accepting a self-defense claim.
“From what I see without knowing all the intimate details of the Florida case, there seemed to be a lot of assumptions,” Wheatley said. “And now there seems to be a lot of backtracking going on down there.”
Wheatley said he supported the expansion of the Castle bill after years of vying for stronger gun laws.
“If we are not going to have these reasonable measures for all citizens, we should provide some guidance and protection for those who are living like we say they need to, but still feel threatened by elements of society we can’t or won’t deal with.”