Trayvon Martin Death

A makeshift memorial for Trayvon Martin is displayed Thursday, April 12, 2012, on the sidewalk outside the complex where Martin was shot dead by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of the 17-year-old. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Chris O'Meara

If you think the kind of incident that resulted in the death of a Florida teen cannot happen here, you’re wrong.

Arizona adopted its own “stand your ground” law two years ago. And not a single legislator spoke out against it at that time.

In fact, the change in the law was tacked on at nearly the last minute to another unrelated measure dealing with guns. And members of the Senate Judiciary Committee approved it after just a 20-second promotion from a gun-rights lobbyist.

Dave Kopp of the Arizona Citizens Defense League, who provided that explanation, said nothing more was needed.

He noted that existing law already spelled out that people have no duty to retreat when confronted in their homes or their own vehicles. That concept is known as the “castle doctrine.”

“We believe that any place you have a legal right to be, you should be able to defend yourself without having to run away first,” Kopp told lawmakers.

Two years later, even in the wake of the publicity over the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, Kopp said nothing has changed — and the Arizona law remains necessary.

“Why would you want to force somebody to retreat before defending themselves?” he asked.

Kopp acknowledged that standing one’s ground may not always be the best choice.

“As an instructor, I always tell my students if you can retreat it’s probably the best idea,” said Kopp, who teaches weapons training.

“But circumstances may dictate otherwise,” he continued. “You may be back to the wall” and cannot retreat — or should not retreat.

Several East Valley police agencies said it’s rare for people to use deadly force to defend themselves, and they couldn’t recall any recent incidents where that kind of reaction was called into question.

People should be aware of their surroundings and think their way out of a conflict rather than confront another person, Tempe police Sgt. Jeff Glover said.

“If you can avoid the conflict or a situation, usually the best way of handling it is by making sure that you’re not putting yourself in a bad position where you’re going to have to defend yourself,” Glover said.

One of seven senators who did vote against the measure at the time was Democrat Linda Lopez of Tucson.

“I do have a problem with ‘stand your ground’ laws,” she said Monday when asked about that opposition.

“I think that it leaves the possibility open for things happening like happened in Florida with Trayvon Martin,” Lopez continued. “You could use that excuse to get away with murder, so to speak, and there would not be an ability for law enforcement to have consequences for people who abuse that.”

So why was there so little opposition?

“I think that people really didn’t understand that there could be some really negative consequences of that kind of action,” she said.

But Chuck Gray, who as a Republican senator from Mesa two years ago chaired the Judiciary Committee — and who sponsored the amendment to the legislation at the behest of the Citizens Defense League — said he was not confused.

“As a police officer you are granted certain authority,” he explained. But he said that authority resides with citizens.

“We never ask our police officers to retreat if they are threatened,” Gray continued. “If they are delegated that authority, that means that same authority resides or maintains with the citizens.”

Gov. Jan Brewer also was not confused when she signed the measure, said press aide Matthew Benson.

“This is a common-sense statute that provides for an individual to act in defense of his or her life if they reasonably believe it is threatened by another person,” he said.

“Self-defense is self-defense,” Benson said. “So regardless of whether you are in your home or your vehicle or standing lawfully in the middle of the street, an individual shouldn’t be required to retreat in order to defend their life.”

He also pointed out the Arizona law is somewhat more restrictive: The right to remain and fight — and use deadly physical force — is linked to someone else’s use or threatened use of deadly physical force. The Florida statute allows individuals to “stand his or her ground and meet force with force,” and applies not only in cases of preventing death but also “great bodily harm” to self or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

It was not just lawmakers who did not object to the measure at the time. Neither did any prosecutor.

Kathleen Mayer, lobbyist for the Pima County Attorney’s Office, said her concerns dealt with other parts of the bill dealing with when police can keep a written record of guns that come into their possession, even temporarily. That was resolved with a compromise.

Anyway, Mayer said the 2010 law is not a license for someone to use deadly force.

“Not having an obligation to retreat is not the same as ‘I have a license to kill any time I feel threatened,’” she said. Mayer said the issue is what a “reasonable person” would have done in the same circumstances.

“If a reasonable person — in other words, a jury of your peers — doesn’t think that you would be justified in that circumstance for using deadly force against an unarmed person, just because you didn’t have to turn around and run away doesn’t mean that you’re automatically off the hook for a homicide,” she said.

When the amended measure went back to the House, only two lawmakers voted against it. One was Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff.

“No way in the world, when there’s a confrontation between two people and a gun is involved, should something accelerate where someone gets shot and killed,” he said Monday.

He said a law like this creates a situation where two rival gangs are on opposite sides of a park and neither side wants to back away.

“What kind of chaos are we going to have when someone presents a gun and someone else presents a gun,” he said. “And what are we going to have in a public area that could end up in some sort of a firefight and innocent people die?”

• Tribune writer Garin Groff contributed to this report.

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