MIAMI (Reuters) - On June 5, 2006, not long after Florida enacted the first “Stand Your Ground” law in the United States, unarmed Jason Rosenbloom was shot in the stomach and chest by his next-door neighbor after a shouting match over trash.
Exactly what happened that day in Clearwater, Florida, is still open to dispute. Kenneth Allen, a retired police officer, said he shot Rosenbloom because he was trying to storm into his house.
Rosenbloom told Reuters in a telephone interview this week he never tried to enter the house and was in Allen’s yard, about 10 feet from his front door, when he was shot moments after he put his hands up.
Now living in Hawaii, Rosenbloom said he had been unaware of the growing outrage over last month’s shooting in Sanford, Florida, of an unarmed black teenager by a neighborhood watch captain.
Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot by George Zimmerman on February 26 while walking back to the house where he was staying with his father in a gated community. Sanford police have not arrested Zimmerman, largely because Stand Your Ground requires them, without clear evidence of malice and in the absence of eyewitness testimony to the contrary, to accept Zimmerman’s argument he was acting in self-defense.
Allen was not arrested in the shooting of Rosenbloom. Sergeant Tom Nestor of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said Allen was found to have acted in self-defense when he pumped two rounds into Rosenbloom with his 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
“He meant for me to be dead and he never called 911,” said Rosenbloom, 36, adding that Allen, now 65, bent over him and using an expletive, warned him not to tangle “with an ex-cop” as he lay bleeding on the ground.
“The police closed it on his words alone,” said Rosenbloom, explaining how the case that began with a complaint about him leaving eight trash bags on the curb instead of the regulation six, was closed after what he described as only a summary investigation.
“They made me the bad guy,” he added.
Allen, contacted by phone in rural Georgia, said on Thursday he had “no regrets” about shooting Rosenbloom, describing him as a “little punk” who was “lucky to be alive.”
He denied using profanity after shooting his neighbor, who he claimed had forced his way into the house and threatened to “beat my ass.”
Police say Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which loosened formerly restrictive rules for using deadly force and gives people wide latitude to employ it in self-defense, was never officially cited in the Rosenbloom case.
But Rosenbloom considers himself one of the first victims of the new law in Florida and one of the few who has lived to give a first-hand account of how he said it can be used to shoot to kill with impunity.
The law, which extended the “castle doctrine” allowing residents to shoot would-be burglars or intruders entering their homes, gives legal protection to anyone, anywhere, to use deadly force in a case where a person is attacked and believes his life or safety is in danger.
One of the law’s legislative sponsors said it was partly motivated by a rash of looting and theft after a series of hurricanes hit Florida in 2005.
Dubbed the “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later” law by critics, the statute extends even beyond self-defense and is seen by some as encouraging vigilante justice.
“A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity ... has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony,” the law says.
“I think it’s a very foolish law meant to turn a blind eye,” Rosenbloom said, referring to how Stand Your Ground has been criticized in the past for protecting people who might formerly have been prosecuted for assault or murder.
The law, approved under former Governor Jeb Bush after a big push by pro-gun advocates led by the National Rifle Association, was passed over numerous objections from the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and state law enforcement officials. Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, announced the formation of a task force on Thursday to “thoroughly review” the law in the wake of the Martin shooting.
“Basically it’s a law that fixed something that wasn’t broken, and then it created a lot of problems,” said William “Willie” Meggs, veteran state attorney for the 2nd Judicial Circuit in Tallahassee, the Florida capital.
“I have been an outspoken critic of the law since it came into existence and I would suspect we may be doing something about it after all the interest we’re seeing in it now,” he said.
According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, at least 23 states have passed laws similar to Florida’s since 2005.
Florida does not keep comprehensive records to gauge the impact of Stand Your Ground. But the St. Petersburg Times said on Friday that the law had been invoked at least 130 times statewide since 2005, and that “justifiable homicides” had more than tripled since the law went into effect.
In cases where the law had been invoked, about 70 percent involved a fatality, the newspaper said.
Despite assertions from supporters of the law that it has worked as a deterrent of violent crime, Dennis Henigan, a lawyer and veteran vice president of the Brady Campaign, said the state was still saddled with a “tragic record” on violent crime.
“It’s quite remarkable how consistently awful Florida’s record has been,” Henigan said. “It takes some work to finish in the top five in violent crime among all the states every single year for the last 30 years.”
NOT A ‘LICENSE TO KILL’
Supporters of Stand Your Ground say it has worked well, while arguing it should not be applied in the Zimmerman case.
“It’s not a 007 license to kill,” said Sean Caranna, who heads a gun rights group called Florida Carry.
Republican State Representative Dennis Baxley, one of the authors of the Stand Your Ground law, said it did not protect people who pursued and confronted their victims, as occurred in Sanford, according to lawyers for the parents of the dead teenager.
“That’s where he (Zimmerman) stepped out on thin ice away from protection of this statute,” he said.
Defending Stand Your Ground, Baxley said that while errors may occur, such as the death of Martin, it was important that the law err on the side of those who fear they are facing “a perceived” threat.
“That’s good public policy. I think we have a good statute and I would hate to lose anything in it that protects people from harm. It saves lives,” Baxley added.
Rosenbloom still has health problems stemming from his injuries and a bullet remains lodged in his right hip.
“Now I live as far away from Florida in America as you can freaking get,” he said, explaining his recent move to Hawaii was aimed at leaving a lot of bad memories behind in what he now calls the “Gunshine State,” a play on Florida’s nickname, “the Sunshine State.”
His family was struck by a second tragedy only three days after he was shot by Allen. Rosenbloom said his younger brother Joshua was shot and killed by police after threatening to commit suicide by disemboweling himself with a sword.
Twenty-year-old Joshua Rosenbloom, a manic depressive, was acting out after hearing his brother was in intensive care in a Tampa hospital, recovering from his gunshot wounds, Rosenbloom said. He was shot three times in his bedroom when police approached while he was still holding the sword in his hands, his older brother said.
Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Peter Cooney