For more than a century, South Carolina law has explicitly recognized a person's right to defend himself.
Then in 2006 came the so-called "stand your ground" law, which says a person can really, really defend himself.
Some in 2006 rightly questioned whether expanding the "Castle Doctrine" theory was necessary. They feared it was potentially dangerous. Now Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, is trying to modify it to make it less so. He has the support of members of the Legislative Black Caucus, but the issue cuts across racial lines.
The present law specifies that a person defending his "castle" does not have to be at home. He can be in his car, his tent or his business.
And he is not required to retreat in the face of a threat. He can go ahead and shoot.
Even as it was passed, some authorities were concerned. Then Ninth Circuit Solicitor Ralph Hoisington predicted tragedies. "When the drunk tries to get in the wrong home at night," for example. The homeowner is given the right to act on appearances "and shoot away."
And Jeff Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs' Association, said then and still says that "it as an excuse to shoot just about anybody for anything as long as you claim 'stand your ground.' "
At least 20 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, expanded their self-defense laws at around the same time. Advocates said they were driven by the escalating severity in violent crime. They saw such laws as a deterrent to criminals.
Mr. Mitchell's modifications are modest and wise. They remove the language allowing a person who is attacked to "meet force with force" with "no duty to retreat" if he "reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or another person or to prevent the commission of a violent crime."
But Rep. Mitchell's bill also would continue to permit business owners to defend themselves in their places of business just as people may in their homes.
Recently, the nation followed the outrageous case of a Florida man who shot and killed another man who was playing his car radio loudly in a parking lot. Florida has a "stand your ground" law, which apparently factored in the jury's inability to reach a guilty verdict of murder.
The shooter said he thought he saw the man reach for a gun. But no weapon was found.
South Carolina has had its share of shootings that were considered acceptable under the "stand your ground" law.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, in a 2011 interview with reporter Glenn Smith, recalled that a North Charleston man had awakened to the sound of someone fiddling with a bicycle chained to an outside door. He went outside, and a teenager took off running. The man shot the teen in the back. He died. The homeowner was not charged.
The Post and Courier's Andrew Knapp recently reported that since 2010, the law has come into play in at least 13 cases in the tri-county area. Eight of those were last year. The cases include a North Charleston resident who said he feared for his life last year when he shot another man in the face during an argument about parking. And a man was absolved of a murder charge after shooting someone in St. George who wasn't the intended target of his gunfire.
Certainly people have the right to defend themselves. And certainly people who are breaking the law put themselves in danger.
But Mr. Mitchell is correct that the existing law leaves too much latitude for people to blast away when it isn't necessary.
Dialing it back some would not diminish a person's right to defend himself - but would keep the law from being misused as justification for precipitate action.
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