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A Most American Way to Die

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Fifty years ago, the South refought the Civil War, burning churches, beating marchers and murdering Freedom Riders under the banner of segregation and states' rights. Fomented by George Wallace and the thuggery of Bull Connor, countless angry white men in hoods and robes took to the streets of Selma and Birmingham to wage combat against the "tyrants" of the civil-rights movement. They were crushed as badly as their forebears at Appomattox – Lyndon Johnson quashed their puny riots, then put across his Great Society package in the greatest progressive landslide in American history – and went home to lick their wounds and plot revenge. The "silent majority," as they called themselves, switched parties, elected Nixon and built grassroots coalitions to leverage what slim power they still had. A quarter of a century later, they would rise again, marshaling an army behind God-guns-and-gay-hate to take the Republican Party by brute force.

One of the pillars of that movement, the National Rifle Association and its estimated 4 million dues-paying members, launched an initiative to rearm themselves through a series of stealth attacks on the nation's gun laws. Using Florida as a test lab, they mobilized their shock troops to bombard state legislators, demanding that they change the state's right-to-carry statute from "may-issue" basis to "shall-issue." "May-issue" meant that Florida, which had the same sensible limits as the vast majority of states around the country, only granted permits to bear arms in public to people who could prove, to the satisfaction of authorities, that they possessed "good moral character." As in other states, cops had discretion, and the number of yearly permits granted was tiny.

The NRA vs. America

But so loud and bullying was the pressure from pro-gun zealots that, by 1987, Florida's legislators buckled, overhauling the law. It became a shall-issue state, meaning that authorities must grant permits to carry concealed, loaded weapons to anyone who doesn't fall into a narrow category of exceptions, including convicted felons or those with prior commitment to mental institutions. This meant, for instance, that men arrested for stalking their girlfriends were free to show up on their doorsteps with enough stopping power to drop an ox. Women pulled over for a DUI? Approved. Psychotic college students who were symptomatic but not committed? Approved. For the crazed and criminal-minded, it was spring break meets jailbreak. Y'all come down and see us – we're one-stop shopping!

Several things happened next in quick succession. State residents applied for permits in droves (at last count, Florida was granting 15,000 a month) and flooded Walmart for stylish Sig Sauers to slip into their purses or blazers. Gunmakers, bereft about the rifle business, which had tanked with the decline of deer hunting, saw a huge upside in pistol sales and avidly began funding NRA efforts to rewrite the carry laws in other states. Working under the noses of the mainstream media, which, to their disgrace, did little reporting on this putsch, gun lobbyists fanned out across the nation racking up triumph after triumph. Today, you can carry a loaded semiauto in 37 states in America.

But gutted gun laws are only useful to shooters if they know they won't be charged for opening fire. In Florida, where gun activists were toasting 18 years of wins and would soon add others to their column (the right to bring loaded weapons to work, so long as you kept them in your car; the right to bar doctors from asking their patients if they had loaded guns around the house; the right to buy rifles used by Army snipers to kill people at a distance of a mile), the state's prolific gun lobbyist, Marion Hammer, rammed home legislation in 2005 that limited the ability of law enforcement to prosecute shooters who had evidence of provocation, no matter how slight. Hammer, an ex-president of the NRA and a musket-toting grandma who proudly enrolled her grandkids in the NRA at birth, is a single-issue force field whose mission in life has been the expansion of Second Amendment rights. (Quoth author and gun lobbyist Richard Feldman: "There is no single individual responsible for enacting more pro-gun legislation in the states than Marion Hammer.") Her Stand Your Ground bill, which passed with ease despite being built on a convenient tale – Hammer claimed to have been stalked in a parking garage by six men, one of whom wielded a "long-necked beer bottle" before she pulled out her .38 and aimed – gave anyone who deemed himself under attack the right to fire first and explain later. Yes, you'd have to tell your side to the authorities, but it'd be on prosecutors to prove you weren't acting in self-defense, and once covered you couldn't be charged for your part in the shooting or be sued for damages by the victim's family.

It was another wild debasement of existing law, this one dating back to a distinctly American iteration of English common law called "castle doctrine," where the original duty to retreat was rejected and you had the right to use deadly force if your castle, i.e., dwelling, was invaded, though there were subtle differences state by state. But the gun lobby got cracking in the 1960s and expanded the law to include your lawn and backyard, then, a couple of decades later, your car, as well. Now, with Stand Your Ground, your castle was your person and your right to use deadly force traveled with you. With the state's masses strapped up and given carte blanche to kill, Florida's gun-grab blew up in its face. Instantly, drug dealers were using the new law to stage shootouts in the streets. Feuding neighbors settled scores, and thugs with multiple busts on their criminal records, many for brandishing guns, were exempt from prosecution after blowing away the boyfriend of the ex they'd been harassing. Per a stellar series in the Tampa Bay Times, which did a months-long search of court records and interviews to profile 222 shooters claiming Stand Your Ground, the law has done nothing to protect the innocent. Instead, it's been a godsend for violent ex-cons who're adept at gaming the system. Said Kendall Coffey, a former federal prosecutor in South Florida, "People who've been through the legal system are going to be more seasoned to using the law. And it doesn't take a master of fiction to turn a homicide into Stand Your Ground."

In the eight years since the passage of Stand Your Ground, self-defense killings have more than tripled in Florida, and prosecutors sometimes have little choice but to accept the shooter's story: The only other witness is in the morgue. And like most of the gun amendments incubated in Florida, this one quickly went viral. It's now the law of the land in more than 20 states. Has it reduced violent crime, the stated goal of the law? Certainly not, according to study after study; homicides are up in SYG states, though they're down almost everywhere else. More than 500 people are dead from such shootings. And the prime victims of these crimes, according to one 2012 Georgia State University study? White males, or precisely the sort of men whom SYG was built to protect. But that's what guns do: They backfire and kill.

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