Martin Dyckman: ‘Loud music’ killing is another stain on the ‘Gunshine State’

 Even as a television plot it would be implausible.

A white man enraged by loud music coming from their car shoots 10 bullets at four black teenagers, killing one.

But the jury is able to find him guilty only of the shots that missed.

Once again, Florida is a theater of the absurd. There are some 159,000 Web references to the “Gunshine State.”

Michael Dunn’s conviction at Jacksonville Saturday will at least keep him caged for 20 years and perhaps as many as 60.

Give credit to the jurors — no one knows how many — who refused to accept Dunn’s claim, unsupported by any evidence, that the victim, Jordan Davis, had threatened him with a shotgun.

Had Davis been alone in that car, however, the hung jury on the murder charge would leave Dunn convicted of nothing. The judge would have to consider bail. The state’s retrial prospects would be questionable.

Florida’s stand-your-ground law of 2005 enables a defendant to claim self-defense without any proof and forces the prosecution to disprove it.

It passed 94-20 in the House and 39-0 in the Senate. Governor Jeb Bush signed it.

It was the most irresponsible act imaginable in a state whose Legislature had long since gone about encouraging Florida to become an “armed utopia,” as the Brady Campaign describes it.

Since 1999, under Governors Bush, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott, Florida has enacted 38 laws (as counted by Bloomberg News) to expand gun rights. It even forbids doctors from asking patients whether they have guns. (A federal judge has suspended that one.)

There was a time — and this is a good time to recall it — when a governor had the good sense and the guts to stand up to the gun lobby.

The year was 1976. The governor was Reubin Askew.

The bill purported to expand the so-called castle doctrine — that your home is your castle and you can use deadly force to defend it — to the “curtilage” as well.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines curtilage as “the land or yard adjoining a house, usually within an enclosure.”

“You’ve all heard the story,” one senator explained, “that if you shoot someone in your yard you’d better drag them inside the house. Well, this gets us away from that.”

Worse, the bill also allowed deadly force if a householder were merely to believe himself in danger of a forcible felony, or just that an attack was “imminent.” It also permitted shooting to kill someone attempting to flee the scene, even after having left the property.

Opponents called it the “shoot the Avon lady” bill.

Sixteen of the 20 state attorneys called on the governor to veto it.

Writing to Askew in support of a veto, Attorney General Robert Shevin warned that it would give private citizens more power than the police, who are normally forbidden to shoot a fleeing suspect.

“I am confident the Legislature did not intend to authorize anyone to kill an individual if it was unnecessary to do so, yet Senate Bill 615 would, in my opinion, do just that,” Shevin said.

Askew announced the veto at a press conference with the attorney general at his side. The governor called it “ill-conceived,” an “overreaction” to concerns over crime, and a “potential danger to innocent citizens and law enforcement officers.”

The bill was seemingly veto-proof, having passed the Senate 39-1 and the House 82-23, but the Legislature had gone home when Askew acted on it.

When the Legislature reconvened in 1977, there was no override attempt. The nominal Senate sponsor had been defeated for re-election. The Florida Bar, which had proposed the legislation — to the embarrassment of many of its members — had a new president who was pleased to let the matter drop.

It came out years later that Dempsey Barron, the Senate president at the time, was the real power behind the bill.

A Florida Bar president eager to curry favor with Barron, who disliked the organization, had promised rashly to help Barron in any way he could.

Barron reached into his desk and produced a draft of the deadly force bill. In recalling the occasion, a Bar lobbyist who had accompanied the president said, “you could hear him sweat.”

Barron needed to hide his fingerprints because his relations with the governor could scarcely have been worse. He may have calculated also that Askew, a lawyer like himself, would hesitate to veto anything backed by the Bar.

If so, he figured wrong.

Will Florida ever have another governor like Askew?

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times. He lives at Waynesville, North Carolina.

Martin Dyckman


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