In the summer of 2005, I interned at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. That summer was a particularly difficult one for us, as it felt that we in the gun violence prevention community struggled with one defeat after another. At the time, the most difficult loss of all was the dissolution of the D.C. handgun ban, allowing for handgun possession in the district for the first time in 29 years. However, it seems that one piece of legislation from the state of Florida that was also passed that summer has not only grabbed the headlines, but has had a host of unintended and devastating consequences.
With the “Stand Your Ground” legislation, Florida became the first of now almost two-dozen states to expand the definition of ‘castle doctrine’ from one’s personal household or property, to one’s person. Put bluntly, according to this legislation, if you feel threatened at any time by any one person, in any location, you are given full agency to use full force without being required to retreat first, and still claim self-defense. In fact, in Florida, a pre-trial hearing can substitute for a full trial if a “stand your ground” defense is heard and accepted by a judge. Since its inception and final passage in October 2005, the “stand your ground” legislation and these cases rarely made national news, but as our nation remembers the murder of Travon Martin as the trial for George Zimmerman begins, the legislation has finally come under significant national scrutiny.
While ostensibly intended as self-defense legislation, these laws have actually precipitated upticks in violence, including homicides, in the states in which they have been enacted, as the case of Jordan Davis – another victim of the “Stand Your Ground” legislation – so heartbreakingly reveals. According to Mark Hoekstra, an economist from Texas A&M University, a study calculating rates of murder and violence in states with and without such legislation, found that “that homicides go up by 7 to 9 percent in states that pass the laws, relative to states that didn't pass the laws over the same time period.”
In Florida specifically, according to a study done by the St. Petersburg Times, the “Stand Your Ground” defense has been invoked at least 93 times, with 65 homicides since the law passed in 2005, and according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in 2009, a homicide was considered warranted on the grounds of “Stand Your Ground” almost twice a week. This legislation has contributed to settling gang violence, increased intimate-partner violence and harmed or killed countless innocent men, women and children. And with Florida’s already lax gun laws, the prospect of innocents being targeted by such disgraceful “defense” is only increased.
The texts dictating our Jewish traditions may seem a bit muddy on the issues both of self-defense and of armament. On the one hand, as laid out in Exodus 24:21, due punishment follows a crime committed, as it states, “If any harm follows…an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” However, as Rabbi Marc Katz described in an article in Tablet magazine recently, the sages of our tradition were extraordinarily reticent to proclaim violence – especially excessive violence – as justified, and while our sages could not have fathomed the extent of weaponry of our time, their reticence is no less prescient, and no less pertinent.
According to Rabbi Katz, the Talmud tells of the six cities in which, according to the Torah, a person who has committed manslaughter can flee for safe haven. As such, those six cities were to severely restrict and limit the amount and kinds of weaponry available so that a ‘blood avenger’ could not utilize any of them against someone seeking refuge. Thus, where “Stand Your Ground” legislation seeks to justify pre-emptive, vigilante-esque violence, this text in the Talmud demonstrates a rabbinic attempt to contain violence by preventing those who seek vengeance, those who may not be thinking straight, and those who actively seek harm from seeking weapons. I can only hope that the Zimmerman trial, along with the countless other examples of the effects of this legislation can help to put an end to gun violence once and for all, giving those on the side of sensible gun violence prevention legislation a much needed victory, and hopefully helping to ease the pain of the families who have suffered the most.
Ariel Naveh is the Machon Kaplan Summer Program Coordinator at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He is also a fifth year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College. The Machon Kaplan program places undergraduate students interested in Jewish social action in positions at diverse social advocacy organizations around Washington, D.C. Read more posts from Ariel and the Machon Kaplan summer interns at the RAC's MKBlog.