Stand Your Ground Laws -

Stand Your Ground Laws

By Tom Crabtree

Todd Knight showed one of his most special possessions, a 22-caliber rifle, to 7 On Your Side's Tom Crabtree.  Knight says the weapon brings back memories.

"I don't really know how to explain the feeling that it gives me," says Knight.

The rifle was a Christmas gift to Knight from his parents when he was eleven.  He planned to use it for hunting.  On March 14, 1988, less than three months after receiving the rifle, Knight was alone in his parents' home near Woodruff in Spartanburg County when two burglars broke in.  He got his rifle.

"I just remember having the mindset of me or them.  That was basically what was going across my mind.  And I knew that if I didn't do something, that they were already into my home... I knew that if i didn't do something that it would be me you were reading about versus them.  I fired three times, as fast as I could.  I was just firing from the hip," recalls Knight, now 35, a husband and father.

The two burglars left.  Todd called 911.  His father told him later that deputies had found both men dead.

"It's kind of a hard pill to swallow when you're eleven.  So I guess I had, through the course of the people around me, my support system around me, encouraging me and just letting me know that I did what I had to do.  I've never really had any negative effects from it."

"I don't believe that the gun saved my life, but it is part of that, and every time I see (the rifle), it reminds me of everything that happened and how easily things could've went another way," says Knight.

And if the gun didn't save his life, who or what did?  "I think there's no other explanation for it.  I was in the palm of God's hand."

Nearly 25 years after Knight's experience, self defense is a hot-button local issue.  "Concealed Weapons Permit" (CWP) classes like the one taught at Top Gun in Boiling Springs, South Carolina by David Blanton, are packed.  "A lot of people have decided that they do not want to be a victim," explains Blanton.

CWP student Glenda Todd:  "I wanted to do something to empower myself."

CWP student Billie Jo Smith:  "I think every woman needs to be able to defend herself."

Blanton says his class is not just about how to use a gun.  It's also about the law.  "If you just simply feel threatened, 'this guy makes me feel uncomfortable,' you cannot shoot the guy.  You have to have that actual self defense present."

Exactly what does the law say about your self-defense rights?  We went to the top to get the answers you need.

Walt Wilkins is solicitor for South Carolina's 13th Judicial Circuit (Greenville and Pickens Counties).  He says changes enacted by the state legislature in 2006 extend your "Castle Doctrine" self defense rights, and the right to use deadly force, beyond when you're in your home, car or business, to anyplace you have a right to be.

Wilkins explains, " If you are lawfully in a place, a park, a public road, where you're lawfully supposed to be, and you're not engaging in any kind of illegal behavior, and you were met with force, then you can meet force with reasonable force in that you're not required to flee from the incident location.  But you have to meet force with reasonable force.  If you meet all those elements, then you are said to be immune again from prosecution if you inflict bodily injury or harm to another in defense of yourself on the ground that which you are standing at that particular time."

"It doesn't give you the right to go and do something willy-nilly or do something just because you feel like it.  These are self-defense laws, and so I think we forget that you have to be in place you're supposed to be, you can't be doing anything unlawful while you're doing that, and if you're confronted with a particular force, you can meet that force directly.  I think anybody would feel that that's a fair assertion of the law.  I should be able to protect myself and my family and protection of others as well, in a fair way, and that's what the law does," says Wilkins.

"Stand Your Ground," as the law is commonly known, is expected to be part of George Zimmerman's defense as he faces a second-degree murder charge in Florida for February's killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.  It's an emotional case that's gone national.

"The Florida law and the South Carolina law are extremely similar," says Wilkins, "If not almost exactly the same."

Like Florida, the laws of South Carolina and North Carolina also say you have no duty to retreat from a place you have the lawful right to be, and you can use deadly force if you believe it's necessary to prevent death or serious injury to yourself or another person.

The Trayvon Martin case has led to some states reexamining "Stand Your Ground" and whether the law is too broad.

South Carolina State Representative Bakari Sellers (D-Denmark) introduced a bill to rescind "stand your ground."  The legislature will not take it up this session.

Sellers tells 7 On Your Side's Robert Kittle, "We didn't get self defense rights in 2006.  We've had it.  It's common law.  We've had it over 100 years, the right to defend yourself.  You will continuously have that. You will have the right to defend your home.  We're not altering that.  But when you're in public, you have a higher sense of responsibility."

Solicitor Wilkins supports the existing law, but says, "Always flee before you exert the force is the best rule of thumb.  However, many times there's not that option."

Todd Knight says fleeing was not an option for him on that afternoon at his parents' home in 1988.

The experience led him to begin a career in law enforcement five years ago.  He's now a police officer for the City of Woodruff.

Because he's an officer, Knight says people often want to talk with him about crime and how they would protect themselves in a given situation.

"I hear a lot of people say 'if they come back over here, then i'm going to do what i have to do or if they come into my house' or whatever.  We as law enforcement can never give somebody permission to shoot somebody.  But I can say you have the right to protect yourself and your property."

Solicitor Wilkins says the trial of George Zimmerman will be watched closely in South Carolina because its "Stand Your Ground" law and Florida's are so similar.  Wilkins notes there will be a pretrial hearing on whether Zimmerman is immune from prosecution under "Stand Your Ground" or self defense.  He says "minute facts" will play a big role in that hearing.

Blanton notes you must be able to legally claim self defense before using deadly force, and the decision whether to use deadly force may have to be made within a few seconds.

"Hopefully your first line of defense is your eyes, and you have noticed that there's an issue.  You've also quickly surveyed your surroundings to see if there's a safe way to escape.  And if you're at a point where you cannot avoid the danger, then are you without fault, are you in actual fear of loss of life, would an ordinary person be in fear of loss of life, you have no avenue to safely avoid the danger, then you must do what you have to do," says Blanton.

Blanton points out, "The firearm is your last resort.  It is not the first resort.  We try to make sure (CWP students) understand if you can possibly avoid danger safely, that's exactly what you should do."

"But if you're faced with a situation where you have no other means of safely avoiding it, you have to do what you have to do."

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