Florida's Far-Reaching Self-Defense Laws May Be At Front of Global Trend

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. George Zimmerman's acquittal this weekend in the Trayvon Martin murder case was not the end of the story. Federal authorities may yet press civil rights charges against the former neighborhood watch volunteer. Attorney General Eric Holder said today that the Justice Department is looking into that. Holder called Zimmerman's fatal shooting of the teenaged Martin "tragic and unnecessary." Zimmerman's acquittal, though, was based on state law in Florida, which gives citizens the option of using deadly force in self-defense, and in that sense Florida may be at the front of a global trend. University of Chicago law professor Tom Ginsburg says criminal law in the US is driving more aggressive interpretations of self-defense laws in several countries.

Tom Ginsburg: In Belgium, for example, after a couple of jewelers were convicted of murder and manslaughter for killing thieves who'd invaded their stores, there was a popular movement to try to change the law there to allow the use of guns in self-defense just for protecting property. So that's one case, and it did lead to some political movement towards more gun rights and changing the criminal law, though they've so far I think been unsuccessful. In Italy, they've been more successful, so the government of Silvio Berlusconi passed in 2006 a law that allowed people to exercise the right of self-defense including the use of guns merely to protect property, so that's a real substantial change from the traditional proportionality standard.

Werman: So that's really more in line with that castle doctrine, that idea that you can defend your home using force that might otherwise be considered excessive.

Ginsburg: Precisely. That seems to have a lot of resonance around the world. I should also mention the United Kingdom. There was a prominent case in 2003 when a farmer killed a would-be burglar, and was convicted of murder, but it raised a very large public outcry and I think shortly thereafter the BBC asked their listeners to suggest a piece of legislation which would be the most important change in law that the listeners could imagine, with the promise that the law would be subsequently introduced in Parliament. They got a helpful Member of Parliament to agree to do this in advance. And the thing which emerged out of that listener survey was a proposal that people be allowed to use any means necessary to defend their home. So we do see something deeply cultural, I think, around the world, in which the home is seen as somehow sacred, a castle, as we use the term, and arrays in the idea that you ought to be able to use force to protect that castle.

Werman: Is there pushback in any countries around the globe where they're starting to look at this legal interpretation of self-defense?

Ginsburg: Yeah, certainly so, I mean, what is driving the change is really a kind of popular movement. It's from below, it's not a project of the professionals who run the criminal justice establishments in various countries. Instead, those people have tended to prefer a kind of protective mode in which they maintain control over the standards of self-defense and every other aspect of criminal justice policy. And so you really see a kind of political struggle, of mass movements coupled, I think, with entrepreneurial politicians who are trying to make hay of the issue, and fighting against that, in some sense trying to defend the traditional self-defense doctrine, are traditional criminal justice professionals, like judges, prosecutors, and others involved in the criminal justice enterprise. And in many countries they've been successful. I think they've been able to resist these movements in many jurisdictions, so it's not clear that this Florida law is going to be followed around the world, it just seems like a significant possibility, and it seems like something that is resonant in the culture of many countries.

Werman: Well, as you put it, the key word there is the Florida law. I'm just wondering where around the world have some of these entrepreneurial politicians, as you put it, been able to get traction and actually put the right of self-defense into a constitution, into law.

Ginsburg: Yeah, if you look at constitutions written in the nineteenth century, or even in the 1950s, they wouldn't really refer to the doctrine of self-defense. But now recently, in Paraguay, Peru, Kazakhstan, Turkey, these countries have actually incorporated the right of self-defense explicitly into the constitution.

Werman: I'm just curious to know what you think countries where these rights are being molded and debated right now, what are they thinking today with the acquittal of George Zimmerman?

Ginsburg: I wouldn't be surprised, Marco, if we don't see politicians in some other countries try to capitalize on this and to try to expand our self-defense laws in various other countries as they have in prior cases.

Werman: Tom Ginsburg teaches international law at the University of Chicago Law School. Thanks very much for your time.

Ginsburg: Thank you, Marco.