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July 24, 2013

Self-defense laws examined in light of Zimmerman verdict

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — The George Zimmerman verdict in Florida has reignited an old debate: How far can you go in defending yourself in America?

In 30 states "Stand Your Ground" laws are on the books.

But they're under fire from high places in the wake of the July 13 acquittal of Zimmerman, 29, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was walking through the gated townhouse community where he was staying.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder condemned the laws in July, saying they "senselessly expand the concept of self-defense" and may encourage more violence.

Supporters say they reduce crime and provide protection to citizens who can't depend on police in crime-plagued communities.

Zimmerman's defense did not directly invoke his state's law, one of the nation's first when it was passed in 2005. But the judge instructed the jury, using language mandated by the law, that Zimmerman "had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground" if he was attacked.

That language is typical of Stand Your Ground laws. All are based on the old concept of the "castle doctrine," which provides that a homeowner is not obligated to retreat in his home and can legally kill an intruder.

But Stand Your Ground takes it a step further, expanding the right to situations outside the home.

While some studies have indicated that states with Stand Your Ground laws have more homicides than those that don't, it's difficult to determine how effective those laws really are in reducing crime because many of them are new and homicide scenarios are so different from case to case.

But those who oppose the laws say the idea of not backing down encourages confrontation and could drive violence up.

Shira Goodman, executive director of the activist group CeaseFirePA, said some people may feel emboldened to stand their ground and escalate a situation rather than defuse it.

Beyond that, she said, the laws are a "solution seeking a problem."

''We didn't believe that people who were legitimately resorting to self-defense were getting jammed up in the system," she said. "It was an unnecessary expansion of the law, we opposed it and we stand by that."

(Reach Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Torsten Ove at Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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