Utah's 'stand-your-ground' law dates to 1994
The killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin has drawn nationwide attention to that state's so-called "stand-your-ground" gun law, which critics argue has let the shooter escape prosecution, thus far.
Utah has had a nearly identical law on the books since 1994, but gun advocates say the law has not been an issue here and argue there is no need to consider changes.
"I think it's tragic what happened [in Florida], but that doesn't mean I don't support our Second Amendment rights," said Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, who sponsored legislation in 2010 to refine Utah'sstand-your-ground law. "I think it's just a tragic event."
Martin, 17, was shot and killed while walking home from a convenience store last month. His shooter, George Zimmerman, who was part of a neighborhood watch team, called police to report Martin's behavior as suspicious and followed the teen.
The Orlando Sentinel citing police sources reported that Zimmerman told police that Martin punched him from behind and banged his head against the sidewalk. Zimmerman shot Martin in the chest and killed him.
Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged with the killing.
Gun-control groups have pointed to the shooting as an indictment of stand-your-ground laws in Florida and 23 other states.
Dee Rowland, of The Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, said that the Martin shooting demands that states, including Utah, take a careful look at these laws.
More broadly, she said she hopes the nation re-evaluates its attitude toward guns.
"The big issue is with the proliferation of handguns and the push for a culture where everyone feels the need to be armed. It's the wrong way to go," Rowland said. "I think we need to change the whole culture of glamorizing weapons and promoting the fear of the 'other.' I think it's broader than any one law."
Utah passed its initial stand-your-ground law in 1994. It was sponsored by Rep. Steve Barth, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, and billed as a way for victims of domestic violence to defend themselves without fearing criminal charges.
Utah already had a statute on the books that allowed individuals to use force to protect themselves from serious injury or death. But during the 1994 Legislative session, HB13 clarified that an individual has no obligation to attempt to retreat before using force language strikingly similar to that in the legislation that then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed into Florida law in 2005. That Florida law was backed by the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council in other states.
"We beat [Florida] to the stand-your-ground thing and we've never had a problem," said Clark Aposhian, a concealed weapons instructor and chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council.
Mitch Vilos, a defense attorney and gun advocate, said he can't recall an instance when Utah's stand-your-ground law has been used as a defense, and he worries that gun-control groups are acting without knowing the facts of the Martin case.
"It's kind of pathetic the way a lot of anti-gun groups use a tragedy like this to push back a law and jump to conclusions before they know what the facts are," he said.
Defense attorney Sean Hullinger said it appears that, in the Florida case, the law is not faulty, only the application of it.
"You've got this 5-foot-nothing kid and you're a larger, experienced, armed person," Hullinger said. "It's not OK to shoot them and certainly if you've been pursuing them."
There has been one notable case in Utah in recent years that, in some ways, is comparable to the Martin episode. In July 2009, two armed men engaged in a standoff in Bluffdale that left one neighborhood watch volunteer David Serbeck paralyzed from the waist down. Reginald Campos was sentenced to up to life in prison in the shooting.
In 2010, Sandstrom sponsored legislation, also backed by the NRA, that would allow someone to announce they have a weapon or draw their gun if they had a reasonable fear for their safety or life.
But Sandstrom said Friday that his bill and Utah's law wouldn't apply to the circumstances of the Martin case, based on what he knows about them.
"If someone is walking away from you, you're not in fear of your life and you have no right to use deadly force at all, so I think what happened is absolutely wrong in Florida," he said.
Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature also passed a bill that allows homeowners to use force if someone is unlawfully in their home. Before, the trespasser had to be committing a felony to justify the use of force.