State Rep. Mike Pitts — “Mr. Gun Rights” to some around the Legislature — remembers the mood of the Statehouse when South Carolina’s “stand your ground” law came up for debate in 2006.
By the numbers
Justifiable homicides statewide and in the tri-county region for the past five years through 2011, the most recent year for which state data is available.
2007: 8 (none in Charleston, Berkeley or Dorchester counties)
2008: 13 (1 in Charleston and 1 in Berkeley)
2009: 12 (1 in Charleston)
2010: 13 (none locally)
2011: 13 (1 in Charleston)
2012: Statistics not available until later this year.
“It was not an extremely hard bill to pass,” said Pitts, R-Laurens, a retired police officer who helped pull the legislation together by borrowing wording from elsewhere.
“The mood of the Legislature was that they went along with what I said,” he said. “And that was very simply: If you have a right to be where you are, then you should have no duty to retreat.”
Seven years later, Pitts and other self-defense supporters don’t see any reason to revisit the South Carolina effort, even as the fallout from the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin murder acquittal in Florida has triggered a national call for re-examining stand your ground laws.
“The court system will weed out anyone trying to use vigilante justice,” Pitts said. “It’s a defensive law and not an offensive law.”
The law here
South Carolina’s venture into stand your ground came a year after Florida was first in the nation. Now, at least 30 states have something similar on the books.
The state’s version did away with a person’s duty to retreat if he is attacked in a place where he has a right to be. The change also exempted from prosecution anyone who was deemed to have used deadly force because he reasonably believed it was necessary to prevent death or serious injury.
In the years since South Carolina passed its effort, at least 59 cases determined to be justified homicides occurred between 2007 and 2011, according to the State Law Enforcement Division.
Around Charleston, instances of South Carolina’s self-defense laws have been applied in small numbers, including some that did not result in death or even feature the use of a handgun. Examples include:
In March 2012 in Ladson, authorities opted against filing charges against a motorist who shot and killed a man who ran up to his car at a traffic light and tried to get into a back door.
The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office said the driver had a legitimate fear of being carjacked and had a right to defend himself under the S.C. Protection of Persons and Property Act.
In May 2012, a case against a federal agent who got into a scuffle while visiting Charleston was tossed out by a magistrate judge. The case began after a Navy sailor reportedly started a confrontation outside a bar on East Bay Street involving the agent’s party. The sailor came away with a 4-inch gash in his abdomen. The agent’s attorney called the case a true example of “stand your ground.”
And there are two other high-profile cases in nearby jurisdictions that were not as clear cut, and are still waiting to be legally settled:
In 2010, Beaufort County tow-truck operator Preston Oates fatally shot Carlos Olivera, who was angry that Oates had put a parking boot on his minivan. Olivera had a gun, Oates said, so he acted to save himself.
Olivera’s family said he had started to walk away when he was shot. Oates was arrested on a manslaughter charge, but the case has yet to be tried as his attorneys argue for dismissal under the state’s “castle doctrine,” another, almost interchangeable name for stand your ground.
In 2011, Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs cited self-defense in shooting a man with whom he had long butted heads. Even through various investigations, authorities still have not given the family a detailed account of what occurred.
Meanwhile, the law is also being tested in ways that some see as extreme. Earlier this month in Columbia, an accused armed intruder said he should not be prosecuted for shooting and killing a man whose home he was in the process of burglarizing because it looked as if the homeowner was going to fire on him first.
The thrust of his case is that the intruder should be able to legally invoke stand your ground in someone else’s home. The case was deemed worthy of being scheduled for a hearing in front of the state Supreme Court.
Some still concerned
Based on these cases and others, some lawmakers say the current state of stand your ground in South Carolina remains legally too loose.
Last year, and just weeks after Martin was shot and killed by Zimmerman, S.C. Democratic state Rep. Bakari Sellers offered legislation that would require someone facing a potential stand your ground episode to at least make an effort to “mitigate” a situation, by stepping away if possible.
As currently written, the law says that someone “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.” The alteration Sellers wants would change the law to say that someone in that situation has to at least show there was an attempt to stave off a confrontation, rather than seek to escalate it.
“You use force only when it’s truly a last resort,” said Sellers, D-Denmark, “and made an effort to get out of the situation. He added, “And you didn’t provoke.”
Zimmerman’s lawyers did not use the Florida stand your ground law in their defense, but after the not guilty verdict, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. condemned stand your ground laws, saying the measures “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense” and may encourage “violent situations to escalate.”
“These laws try to fix something that was never broken,” Holder said during the annual convention of the NAACP.
But he also conceded the federal government has little power to reverse such legislation across more than 30 state legislatures, since the statutes are a product of state laws, as opposed to federal ones.
Testing the waters in South Carolina, it appears that given the current makeup of the Legislature, restrictions on self-defense laws have little chance of gaining a foothold here, especially with an election year ahead in 2014. Republicans overwhelming control both the Statehouse and the halls of state government, and there are a number of Statehouse Democrats who are also considered self-defense supporters.
South Carolina is considered so secure in the pro-gun rights’/self-defense column that some lawmakers say the state barely draws interest from outside gun groups seeking to influence the annual legislative sessions.
“I’ve, to the best of my knowledge, never shaken the hand of a NRA lobbyist,” said state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, a 12-year Statehouse veteran.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.