Gregory Kirk Duncan didn't take too kindly to the way Christopher Spicer, a guest in his Greenville County home, was talking about a picture of his daughter in a cheerleading outfit. Duncan asked Spicer to leave, and he did — but not for long.
Within minutes after exiting the house, Spicer tried to come back in through the screen porch door. Duncan stepped out onto the porch with a gun in hand and told him to leave, but Spicer kept trying to force his way past. So Duncan put a bullet through Spicer's head.
Duncan was initially jailed for the shooting, but a Greenville County circuit court judge appealed his arrest, citing South Carolina's Protection of Persons and Property Act, a series of laws enacted in 2006 that guaranteed a person the right to defend him or herself against "great bodily injury" in his or her own home, vehicle, or business. The case made its way to the state Supreme Court, and in May 2011, based on testimonies that confirmed the preceding story, Duncan was exonerated. The court ruled that Spicer's forceful attempt at entering the home constituted an adequate threat to warrant self-defense under the law.
South Carolina is hardly unique in its interpretation of what is known as the "castle doctrine" — that is, that a person's home is his castle, and that he has a right to defend it. Florida became the first state to expand its self-defense laws when, in 2005, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill into law that said a person can use deadly force in self-defense not only in the home or vehicle, but "any other place where he or she has a right to be." The bill was nearly identical to model legislation proposed by the conservative special-interest American Legislative Exchange Council, which was itself based on model legislation from the National Rifle Association. According to the public-interest reporting website ProPublica, half of the states in the Union now have sweeping self-defense laws like Florida's. In many states, the rules have come to be known as "Make My Day" or "Stand Your Ground" laws — after the fact that people operating within the new laws are not required to retreat before pulling out a weapon, provided they have a legal right to be where they are and are not engaged in criminal activity at the time.
Now, Bakari Sellers, a Democratic South Carolina representative from Bamberg, is calling for a review of the state's interpretation of the castle doctrine, especially the provision for a home defender who "reasonably believes" himself or herself to be in danger. Sellers introduced a bill to that effect on March 22, but so far no one has signed on as a co-sponsor.
The Stand Your Ground law in Florida has come under renewed scrutiny since the Feb. 26 shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. According to news reports, Martin, 17, was walking home in a gated community when he crossed paths with self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, who started following Martin through the neighborhood in his car. Eyewitness accounts vary, with some saying Martin tried to escape and others saying Martin attacked Zimmerman, but in the end, Zimmerman was seen standing over Martin's dead body with a pistol in hand. Martin, who was unarmed, died of a single gunshot wound to the chest. When police arrived, Zimmerman claimed protection under the Stand Your Ground laws, and he was not arrested.
South Carolina's Stand Your Ground law (Title 16, Article 6) is similar to Florida's in that it allows people to use deadly force in self-defense in their home or vehicle (a special provision even guarantees the same right for people sleeping in tents). But whereas the Florida law includes the blanket provision for "any other place where he or she has a right to be," South Carolina's phrasing is slightly different: The castle defender can be "in another place where he has a right to be, including, but not limited to, his place of business." Sellers' bill in the South Carolina Statehouse seeks to remove the special provision for places of business.
In the wake of Martin's shooting, Florida's broad Stand Your Ground law is being put to the test. Now that 911 tapes have revealed that Zimmerman got out to confront Martin, against the advice of a 911 operator, some are questioning the intent of the law. When people are allowed to carry concealed weapons in a state with Stand Your Ground laws, exactly how far does the license to kill extend?
The matter of race complicates the case even further: Zimmerman is of mixed white and Latino heritage, and Martin was African American. At an "I Am Trayvon" rally in Martin's memory Thursday on the College of Charleston campus, Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP chapter, cautioned the crowd to remember that all of the facts were not yet in on the events that lead to Martin's death. Afterward, however, she questioned the ways in which Stand Your Ground could be interpreted. She agrees that people in their homes should not have to retreat before defending themselves, but she says the broadly inclusive language of the law needs to be revisited and perhaps done away with.
"It extends beyond what is considered your space," Scott said. "It becomes common space, and people are now deciding, 'I'm just going to decide that space is yours.' And it really breeds racial profiling. I really believe it gives those people who are not necessarily of good will an excuse to go after people that they have a preconceived notion of who and what they are."
While Rep. Sellers' bill floundered in the House Committee on Judiciary, the State House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday allowing Concealed Weapon Permit holders to carry guns in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, provided they don't drink any alcohol. Rep. Sellers declined to vote on the measure, and a landslide 83-7 vote sent the bill on to the Senate.
Stand Your Ground has its proponents. Arlyn Pendergast, president of ATP Gunshop and Range in Summerville, cautions that "one person shouldn't ruin a good law."
"In the day before the castle doctrine law, say somebody broke into your house and you defended yourself, and you couldn't prove that you tried to get away," Pendergast says. "You're going to be charged with murder. Now you're going to have to hire a lawyer, go to court, and prove you're not guilty."
A basic tenet of ATP's self-defense shooting classes is, "If you don't have to shoot, don't." But there comes a time when deadly force is the only way out.
"When criminals cross a certain threshold, you don't have choices. You have to do it," Pendergast says. "Luckily, most of us have never been in that situation."