The tragedy of Treyvon Martin’s death has prompted a lot of discussion about self-defense laws, some of which has made sense, and lots of which has been utterly outlandish. Liberals seem intent on “not letting a crisis got to waste” (as Saul Alinsky recommends) and have been agitating for tougher restrictions on the use of deadly force in self-defense, while others are determined to make other changes in Virginia’s laws to make sure that those who legitimately use self-defense don’t get wrongly abused by the legal system. Before that happens, folks should understand what the law is, and why it is that way.
One of the most knowledgeable people on this subject is Philip Van Cleave of the VCDL. As a former law enforcement officer and a second-amendment rights activist in Virginia, his relatively succinct commentary on this is a good starting point:
Self-defense in Virginia’s common law goes back over 400 YEARS. If attacked, Common law allows an innocent citizen to be able to defend himself wherever he may be. Deadly force can be used in such a case if the victim REASONABLY feels that he is in IMMEDIATE danger of death or GRIEVOUS bodily injury. If you REASONABLY believe that a person who is attacking you is armed, then you can use deadly force even if, in the end, he was unarmed. Or, if you REASONABLY feel that an unarmed person, who is more powerful than you, is going to kill you with his bare hands and/or feet, you can use deadly force to stop that attack.
The key in Virginia’s Stand-Your-Ground common law is that you are not somehow an instigator of the violence so as to use that violence as an excuse to kill the other person. If, for example, you are closely following a suspect, or are confronting a suspect in some way, (both of which Zimmerman *appears* to have done) you may suddenly find yourself on very thin legal ice if attacked. This is where the extraordinary powers we give police come in handy for them. You and I lack many of those legal protections.
If you do find that you goofed up and are “part of the problem, ” then you need to retreat as far as you can, indicate you have given up the fight, and only if cornered and the person persists in what you REASONABLY believe is a deadly attack, may you then use deadly force to protect yourself. You will certainly have a lot of explaining to do to the authorities if you find yourself in this kind of situation.
Bottom line: if you are not a police officer, you should avoid confronting a criminal whenever possible. If your life, or the life of another innocent person, is in immediate danger, and you feel that confrontation might stop the criminal from the act, then do what you have to do to save the threatened innocent life. Perhaps yelling at a person who is attempting to rape someone will scare them off - only you will be able to make that call if you find yourself in a position where you can make a difference.
Just remember this: at the end of the day, you need to be able to explain exactly why you feared immediate death or grievous bodily injury and, if the police and prosecutor agree that you had every reason to believe what you did, you will probably not be charged for murder (or attempted murder or brandishing). If the police or prosecutor reasonably believe that you were looking for trouble or a fight, that is going to be a problem, and rightfully so.
I think just about anybody who isn’t a gun grabber would look at this and say it’s pretty reasonable. Unfortunately the gun grabbers have been working overtime to deliberately mislead the electorate about what the law is in order to establish a basis for changing it to their likes. The horrific downside to their irresponsibility is that some folks might actually think what they’re saying is true and wrongly conclude that it’s legal to shoot someone without legal justification. Instead of promoting public safety, they deliberately undermine it in hopes the tragic results provide them with political momentum.
This last legislative session there was an effort to establish “Castle Doctrine” in Virginia to protect homeowners from inappropriate civil or legal liability if forced to defend themselves in their own home, but as it turned out there were a few problems with the approach that was taken. Instead of potentially undermining the common law standards in an effort to do this, the idea was shelved for now while some legal experts carefully work on the proposal for next year’s session. This area of the law has to be very carefully considered before changes are made, and that seems to be what’s happening.
I have no doubt this is going to be a hot topic next legislative session as the left continues to incite racial tensions, maliciously lie about evidence in the Trayvon Martin case, and wrongly claim that Virginia’s laws are an open season on “hunting humans.” The facts will be critical during that debate and hopefully they will put a stop to the kind of utterly irresponsible tactics employed by the left so far.
As for the practical implications here, every gun owner in Virginia should have a solid understanding of what the law is. If you make a bad decision, you should and will face a very harsh penalty for that poor judgment. If you know how to make good judgments, based on what the law is, you’re far less likely to take ill-advised actions that could put you in a situation where you have to resort to deadly force in order to protect innocent lives.
UPDATE: Tidewater Liberty has a great post on this as well that goes into some detail on the legal concepts without requiring a law degree to make sense of it.
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