As national debate intensifies over a “stand your ground” law in Florida that critics say enabled a neighborhood watch activist in February to shoot a black, unarmed teenager, Eastern Iowan authorities are hoping the controversy will put to rest a proposal to enact a similar self-defense law in Iowa.
“A person already has the right to defend themselves or others, if needed,” said Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden. “The ‘stand your ground’ legislation goes far past that. I refer to it as the ‘license to kill’ statute, because that’s exactly what it does.”
The Iowa House on Feb. 29 passed the self-defense legislation that would enable people to use deadly force to protect themselves or another person as long as they are in an area lawfully. But the legislation, which would broaden the state’s existing self-defense law that allows Iowans to use force to defend themselves in their homes or places of work, died in the Senate.
The bill’s sponsor intends to resurrect the proposal in the next legislative session, but local law enforcement officials say the killing of Trayvon Martin, 17, in Florida on Feb. 26 exemplifies why the proposal should be dropped for good.
“I think this incident in Florida is going to be, our hope is, an eye-opening true life experience for legislators about what can happen with this type of legislation on the books,” Vander Sanden said.
According to Florida authorities, an unarmed Martin was walking through a gated community when George Zimmerman, 28, began following him. Zimmerman told police Martin attacked him, but Martin’s family said Zimmerman was profiling their son. Zimmerman is accused of shooting Martin and killing him, according to police.
Authorities haven’t arrested Zimmerman, and the Department of Justice and a Florida state attorney are now investigating the case. It’s unclear whether Florida’s self-defense law will be applied in the case, but the law has come under scrutiny since the fatal shooting.
Sweeping self-defense laws like the one in Florida exist in 23 other states, according to the independent news agency ProPublica. Vander Sanden said the laws not only make it difficult to prosecute some cases, but they encourage people to escalate a situation rather than retreat and call authorities.
“If you give law enforcement powers to citizens who have no law enforcement training, tragedy will result,” Vander Sanden said.
The proposed legislation that passed through the Iowa House this legislative session would allow a person to use force — even deadly force — against someone who they reasonably believe is committing a violent felony or is a threat to kill or cause serious injury.
The proposal says a person has “no duty to retreat from any place where the person is lawfully,” and it states that a person “may be wrong in the estimation of the danger or the force necessary to repel the danger as long as there is a reasonable basis for the belief.”
Law enforcement agencies statewide have opposed the legislation, but bill sponsor Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, said critics of the law underestimate Iowans.
“Anyone who claims this will turn Iowa into the wild wild west apparently doesn’t believe Iowans are reasonable people like I do,” Windschitl said.
There are similarities between the Iowa proposal and the Florida law in their intentions to allow residents the right to defend themselves wherever they are, Windschitl said. But, he said, it’s unfair to use the Martin case as an example of what could go wrong in Iowa.
“It’s a tragic and unfortunate incident, but we don’t know what happened,” he said. “I don’t know if the man was justified in his actions or not.”
Windschitl said he intends to reintroduce Iowa’s version of the “stand your ground” bill in the next legislative session. Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said he’ll keep fighting the proposal as long as it finds an audience with the legislature.
“It would make it almost impossible for us to prosecute wrongdoing,” he said. “This would allow even the bad guys to engage with each other.”
Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said she’s concerned about the proposed bill because it would implement a “shoot first ask questions later” policy that could be problematic in a college community like Iowa City where students have been known to drink and occasionally end up in the wrong house.
“We could have a situation where we would have a drunk student go into the wrong place, and any neighbor could shoot and kill them, and that would be acceptable,” Lyness said. “It’s a dangerous approach to take.”
Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said the proposed bill wasn’t even discussed in the senate’s judiciary committee and, considering the current debate over Florida’s law, he doesn’t expect the legislation to get much attention in subsequent sessions.
“I would think, for a while, this will put that to rest,” he said.
If you go:
What: A "1,00,000 Hoodie March for Trayvon Martin" honoring a Florida teen shot and killed in February and demanding justice in his case.
When: 6:30 p.m. Monday
Where:Iowa City's pedestrian mall; an after session will follow at L&J Kitchen BBQ House, 320 E. Burlington St.