POLITICS

In Wake Of Shootings, An Oklahoma Lawmaker Wants To Fix 'Stand Your Ground'

The proposed amendment would require that people at least try to retreat before they resort to force.

Oklahoma state Sen. Kevin Matthews (D) is seeking to amend his state's "stand your ground" law in the wake of a 2015 shooting that led to the death of a young man.

In February 2015, a security guard at a Tulsa apartment complex shot 21-year-old Monroe Bird III in the spine, paralyzing him. The guard, Ricky Stone, argued that he was acting in self-defense because Bird had allegedly backed his vehicle into him. 

Oklahoma's "stand your ground" law, enacted in 2006, authorizes a person to use force -- even deadly force -- when attacked. They are not required to try to retreat first.

Matthews’ amendment would change that, stipulating that people must attempt to retreat before they resort to using force.

“I just want to take away an excuse for me to be able to shoot somebody, leaving me all the options to leave rather than shoot someone,” Matthews told The Huffington Post. “I think that's what we need to be doing as human beings, and definitely as Oklahomans."

So-called "stand your ground" laws originated in Florida in 2005 and were quickly adopted by more than 20 other states. The defense was widely scrutinized after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, in Florida in 2012.

Matthews said that Bird’s family asked him to introduce the amendment.

Witnesses say that Bird, who was African-American, was driving away from the scene when Stone fired at him. He was struck in the neck, which left him paralyzed for nearly five months. He eventually died as a result of his injuries. The Tulsa County district attorney declined to prosecute Stone, concluding that the shooting was justified under the "stand your ground" defense.

Matthews emphasized that the current version of the law allows people to shoot without attempting to run away or even call the police.

"You've got the right to just shoot and kill and say, 'I felt threatened,'" said Matthews. "That's a dangerous law. And Monroe Bird may not be deceased if we didn't have it."

Matthews' amendment would also require the person to demonstrate that they were attacked without provocation in order to invoke the "stand your ground" defense. As the law is currently written, there is no requirement to demonstrate that the altercation began without provocation. That requirement is included in "stand your ground" laws in some other states, including Texas. 

“We’ve seen across the country -- somebody chases somebody down, then shoots them, and [then] says they were 'standing their ground,'” Matthews said. “But here in Oklahoma, this young man driving away in his vehicle shouldn't have gotten shot.”

Matthews cited another recent case in Pryor, Oklahoma, where a 14-year-old boy was shot several times in the back on New Year’s Day as he ran away from a house while playing a game of "doorbell ditch" with a friend.

"How can you fear for your life when a kid is running out of your yard?” said Matthews.

Matthews opposed the original "stand your ground" bill when it was introduced in the state legislature in 2006. “Initially when it came here, I said on the floor that I feared that African-Americans and others will be killed," he said. "Since this law has passed, it has not only been African-Americans, it has been others. Some may have been justified, but to be able to shoot people when you have an option to leave [or] they are leaving -- they're not pulling a gun on you, they're not aiming a gun at you, they're not committing violence against you ... It's a dangerous law."

Matthew's bill was referred to the state Senate's Public Safety Committee, where it will be reviewed on Tuesday.

Matthews said he does not expect to get much support for moving the bill forward, but will continue to advocate for changes to the law.

"I don't believe that this amendment is going to be popular. I’m sure it's not, because all of the emails and texts that I’ve gotten," he said. "But I have to be the voice for the voiceless."

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