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Florida's 'stand your ground' law incentivizes violence. Markeis McGlockton's death proves it.

A public argument over a parking spot ends in a father being shot to death, and yet no one is prosecuted. Is this what America has become?
Image: Markeis McGlockton
Surveillance video released by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, shows the moment Markeis McGlockton, far left, is shot by Michael Drejka during an altercation in the parking lot of a convenience store in Clearwater, Fla.Pinellas County Sheriff's Office via AP

Another killing. Another tragedy. And once again Florida’s “stand your ground” law is in the news after an unarmed man named Markeis McGlockton was shot to death on July 19 in front of his family during a dispute over a convenience store parking place. So far, the man who killed McGlockton has not been charged with any crime. Take a moment and think about that — a parking spot argument leads to a fatal shooting and no one is prosecuted. Is this where we wish to be as a country?

This question is asked, not rhetorically, but seriously. And it’s one that gets at the very basis of these laws, and of public policy generally. Why do we adopt the laws that we do? At best, Florida’s “stand your ground” law is a solution to a non-existent problem. At worst, it seems to have exacerbated the problem it ostensibly was designed to correct. Rather than improving the security of its citizens, it has actively lessened it. It has sown confusion among law-enforcement, prosecutors and the courts and its reach has extended to levels beyond the intent of at least one of the law’s primary sponsors, Dennis K. Baxley.

This law has made Floridians less safe, and in fact encourages violence in a way that threatens everyone’s goal of a well-ordered and secure society.

This law has made Floridians less safe, and in fact encourages violence in a way that threatens everyone’s goal of a well-ordered and secure society.

First passed in 2005, Florida’s “stand your ground” law grants an individual the right to use deadly force if the individual “reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another.” In exercising this right, the individual has no “duty to retreat.” Additionally, as amended in 2017, Florida's version of the law requires the state to provide “clear and convincing evidence” proving the killer deserves to be prosecuted.

A couple of things must be stated. First, prior to the adoption of the law, Florida residents already had the right to defend themselves against attack. The new law did something unusual in that it removed the long-standing obligation to retreat. In other words, prior to 2005, Floridians had the right to defend themselves but also had an obligation to try and remove themselves from the threat if reasonably possible.

Additionally, the 2017 version of the law eliminated the centuries-old, common law position that the use of deadly force against another requires some semblance of proof. (English common law is the basis for the overwhelming majority of U.S. state laws on self-defense). Instead, the Florida statute now operates using the premise that an individual need only feel threatened to exercise deadly force. The bar for this claim remains low, requiring little adjudication or investigation.

This should be an alarming development for anyone, but it should especially worry conservatives. The revised Florida statute is a disturbing and distressing example of radical and extremist legislation that violates all the norms of conservative thought and policy.

A political conservative traditionally gives great weight to the wisdom of tradition and history as a guide to making decisions in formulating policy and establishing law. Preeminent among the conservative’s concerns is a structured and orderly society, one in which security in one’s person is privileged. A primary goal of public policy is to envision how society should be. Among those visions is a society that minimizes and discourages violence, particularly killings.

Unfortunately, as the evidence shows, "stand your ground" laws have had the opposite effect. Since the Florida law's adoption, for example, not only have “lawful” homicides increased by 75 percent, but overall homicides in Florida increased by 22 percent, according to a 2017 report. This, at a time when the overall murder rate in the United States has decreased to its lowest level in 40 years. If the goal is to make Floridians safer and more secure, this law clearly has failed to do so.

One should not be surprised by this fact. The law itself creates, in warped and perverse ways, numerous incentives for people in Florida to act, not only violently but lethally.

Preeminent among those reasons is that, in many instances, law enforcement and prosecutors are limited by the version of events alleged by the person who survives. Dead men tell no tales. The dead individual cannot provide a second version of what happened or contextualize it.

Then there's the issue of appropriate actions and reactions. Legally, Florida law allows someone to respond to a shove with a bullet to the chest. One need only examine the most recent case to see how this policy easily results in a cruel and unjust outcome.

In this incident, according to the publicly available facts as well as video footage from the scene, Michael Drejka approached a car in which Brittany Jacobs was a passenger and began berating her for parking in a handicapped space. As Drejka argued with her, the owner of the car, Jacobs' boyfriend Markeis McGlockton, exited the store and, seeing Drejka confronting his girlfriend, shoved Drejka to the ground. Although McGlockton does not appear to further escalate the situation, Drejka does, pulling out his gun and firing a single, fatal shot.

But what if McGlockton, instead of shoving Drejka, had instead pulled out a gun of his own and shot and killed him? Given the facts as reported, McGlockton could have claimed that he was the one acting reasonably by protecting not only himself, but also his girlfriend and young children. Drejka had approached the car unbidden, had acted aggressively and was armed. Under the principles of “stand your ground," it seems possible that McGlockton could have killed Drejka and successfully argued self-defense.

Image: Markeis McGlockton
Tempe Louis, of Clearwater, pauses to observe a memorial on the side of the Circle A Food Mart, in Clearwater, Fla on July 24, 2018.Douglas R. Clifford / Tampa Bay Times via AP

But is this what we desire — a society that encourages killing instead of simply pushing away an aggressive individual? Even more perversely, the law seems to reward individuals who do the provoking while placing almost no constraints on the aggressor. Instead, it protects the individual who initiates the conflict, as it seems to have done in this instance. Drejka was shoved to the ground because of his aggressive behavior and yet, even though he created the hostile situation, he walked away unharmed and McGlockton is dead.

There's one big caveat here. While the law may by blind, the people who implement and execute it are not. If McGlockton had responded to Drejka’s aggression by killing him, evidence suggests strongly that McGlockton would have been treated differently. Why? Because McGlockton is black and Drejka is white.

All of which is to say that “stand your ground laws” do not accomplish the purposes for which they were designed. This makes them bad laws, plain and simple. In light of this most recent shooting — the latest in a pattern of questionable situations and tragedies — one would hope that the Florida legislature would have the courage to scrap or amend the statute and return instead to the time-honored understanding of true self-defense. In doing so, Florida politicians would demonstrate that they actually do care about the wellbeing of their citizens, and are not simply acting as corrupt proxies for the gun lobby.

Edward L. Queen, Ph.D, J.D. is Director of the D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership at the Emory University Center for Ethics. He also serves as Director of Pedagogy for the Emory Integrity Project. Queen's work focuses on applied and professional ethics and the development and implementation of ethics programs in businesses, nonprofits and governmental agencies.