In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, the Republican state representative backs Pennsylvania's self-defense law.
The shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin has spurred an intense national conversation over controversial self-defense laws. Many argue that Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, is illegitimately using Florida’s Stand Your Ground law—which provides for the justifiable use of deadly force to protect one’s self from the threat of death or bodily harm—to shield himself from prosecution.
Last summer, after a long and emotional debate among Pennsylvania state lawmakers, Gov. Corbett signed into law House Bill 40, an expanded version of the state’s “Castle Doctrine,” which has long justified the use of deadly force for self-defense in one’s home without a duty to retreat. Prior to 2011, the law stipulated that if you were anywhere outside your home and you felt your life was being threatened, you were obligated by law to try to retreat first and use lethal force only as a last resort. The expanded law eliminates your duty to retreat in public spaces.
Yet there are differences between our Castle Doctrine and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law: The Castle Doctrine states that the person threatening your life must openly display a weapon for you to be justified in using deadly force. (Trayvon Martin was unarmed.)
There have already been a couple test cases in Pennsylvania since HB 40 went into effect in August. For instance, in December, Montgomery County resident Angel Gonzalez, 42, shot and killed 19-year-old Zach Levin and wounded his stepfather, Joshua Levin, after the two men attacked Gonzalez with baseball bats in his driveway. Two weeks ago, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Ferman cited the expanded Castle Doctrine in announcing that no charges would be filed against Gonzalez.
In the wake of the Martin shooting, the Philadelphia-based anti-gun-violence group CeaseFirePA has launched a blistering attack on Pennsylvania’s expanded Castle Doctrine, which the group vigorously opposed while it was being considered by lawmakers.
“We now see how last year’s expansion of the Castle Doctrine can lead exactly where concerned citizens feared it might,” wrote CeaseFirePA board president Dan Muroff in a March 22 press release. “Amazingly, some legislators in Florida still defend Stand Your Ground, suggesting it was misapplied in Trayvon’s case. Deflecting blame won’t prevent vigilantes from recklessly using handguns, or from thinking they can shoot without fear of scrutiny from law enforcement.”
In an email demanding that the decision to expand the Castle Doctrine (which he calls a “Shoot First” law) be reversed, CeaseFirePA director Max Nacheman concluded, “How many more innocent people like Trayvon Martin must die before Harrisburg comes to its senses?”
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County)—co-sponsor of the expanded Castle Doctrine and Pennsylvania’s leading, and most unapologetic, pro-gun lawmaker—insists the expanded law is a good piece of legislation and accuses CeaseFirePA of “capitalizing on somebody’s tragic loss” for its “anti-gun agenda.” In an interview with PW, Metcalfe discusses the Martin killing and defends the Castle Doctrine from its detractors.
Based on what you’ve read and heard, what’s your take on the Trayvon Martin shooting?
I think it’s very clear from what’s been reported that [George] Zimmerman put himself in a situation where he shouldn’t have been. He shouldn’t have been pursuing this individual. From everything that’s been reported, it’s just a very tragic situation and one that shouldn’t have occurred.
Do you think George Zimmerman should have been arrested, and do you believe the Stand Your Ground law applies in this case?
I don’t have all the facts, all I have is what’s been reported. And I believe that Jeb Bush, the former [Florida] governor who signed [Stand Your Ground], has made a statement that Florida’s [law] does not apply to the situation. Clearly, it sounds like from what was reported, that this individual was pursuing the young man who ended up being shot, which is not something that anybody should be doing. It’s one thing to protect your home or to come to the aid of a neighbor who’s screaming for help in the alley or in their own home. But for somebody to be pursuing somebody down the street because they have suspicions, that’s a job for law enforcement. That’s not a job for a local crime watch individual or a security guard or anybody like that. From what’s been reported, it really would appear that Zimmerman was acting outside the law.
Last year, when Pennsylvania lawmakers voted to expand the Castle Doctrine and add a stand-your-ground provision, opponents argued that the new law would create a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality and encourage and protect vigilantes. Based on what happened in Florida, groups like CeaseFirePA are now essentially saying, “We told you so.” How do you respond to that criticism?
I think it’s typical of the people in the United States that want to take firearms away from law-abiding citizens. Their typical response is to prey on these situations that occur where someone loses their life in a tragic set of circumstances. When CeaseFirePA tries to exploit this loss of a life in Florida for their own gain in Pennsylvania, I think it’s outrageous.
Bottom line: Would George Zimmerman be protected under Pennsylvania’s Castle Doctrine?