Florida shooting could spur Pa. gun-law reforms

A man prompts drivers to honk their car horns as protesters march along JFK Boulevard to a rally for slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
A man prompts drivers to honk their car horns as protesters march along JFK Boulevard to a rally for slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 07, 2012

The six weeks since the senseless shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin by a town-watch volunteer have only served to intensify the scrutiny of reckless self-defense laws - like one on the books in Pennsylvania - that permit citizens to shoot first if they feel threatened.

So it's good to hear that State Rep. Ronald G. Waters (D., Phila.) has issued a call for gun-safety reforms and to "not let Trayvon Martin's death go in vain."

The legal defense that, so far, has shielded George Zimmerman from being arrested for the Feb. 26 death of Martin, after an encounter in a gated central Florida community, is one that could be used in Pennsylvania and nearly two-dozen other states with what's known as "stand your ground" laws.

These laws expand the traditional right of homeowners to defend themselves with lethal force. They wrongly extend the right to shoot someone inside your home perceived as a threat to virtually any location - whether it's at the scene of a car accident, a sporting event, or standing in line at the convenience store.

Before Gov. Corbett signed the state's expanded castle doctrine into law, his predecessor, Ed Rendell, had vetoed the measure on the grounds that it encouraged a Wild West mindset that would put citizens at greater risk.

A good example of such risks occurred a decade ago in Montgomery County when a drunken man who stumbled naked into a neighbor's house was pursued outside and shot to death. The wording of the state's current self-defense statute would have made it difficult to prosecute the gunman.

Restoring sanity to the state's castle doctrine doesn't mean going soft on crime. As Waters noted, Democrats in the legislature proposed numerous other public-safety initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence.

The broadened castle doctrine clearly should be repealed and restored to its former status as a reasonable legal protection for homeowners whose lives truly are threatened.

At the same time, Harrisburg lawmakers could take other sensible steps to improve gun safety in the state, including requiring the reporting of lost or stolen weapons, enacting a one-gun-a-month limit on legal purchases, closing the so-called Florida loophole that allows Pennsylvanians denied a gun permit in their community to obtain a legal permit in another state, and requiring background checks for every weapons purchase.

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