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February 21, 2011

“How do you shoot someone eight times in self-defense?”

On February 10, National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. and declared, “Throughout history, one simple truth rings as loud and clear as a bell—the presence of a gun in the hand of a good person makes us all safer.” But a recent tragedy from Florida suggest that perhaps an earlier LaPierre quote—“The guys with the guns make the rules”—more accurately reflects the reality of contemporary America, in a “might makes right” kind of way.

On November 24, 2010, Thomas Baker, a 28-year-old resident of Town ‘n’ Country, Florida, decided to go for a jog. It wasn’t your typical run, however. Baker headed out at approximately 1:00 AM with $950 in cash and a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun.

18-year-old Carlos Mustelier and his 16-year-old friend saw Baker as they headed to a Beverage King in the neighborhood. Mustelier told his friend he was going to rob Baker. After leaving the store, which was closed, they saw Baker passing them again. “I'm going to bam him. I'm gonna knock him out,” Mustelier announced.

The two teens, clad in dark-hooded sweatshirts, confronted Baker. Mustelier closed in and punched Baker in the face, cutting his lip. "You wanna play games? You wanna play games?" Baker said to Mustelier. He immediately pulled out his handgun, centered his laser sight on Mustelier’s chest, and fired eight hollow-point bullets at point-blank range at the unarmed teen. Four bullets hit Mustelier: one in the chest, one in the buttocks, and two in the back. He was dead by the time paramedics arrived (Mustelier’s friend John Martinez rushed to the scene but was unable to revive him). Mustelier’s 16-year-old friend ran for his life, returning later when police arrived. Authorities searched both teens and found no weapons of any kind. Both had clean criminal records.

Detectives interviewed Baker and asked him, "When you go running at night in the neighborhood, do you normally arm yourself with a firearm?" "I always have it on me, unless I'm going to the courthouse,” Baker replied. As for the $950, Baker told detectives he was unemployed and made money fixing friends’ cars. He had just done some work for a friend and that’s why he had that amount of money in his pocket, he claimed. Finally, Baker said he shot Mustelier in self-defense because he thought the teen had a gun on him.

The story worked. Florida prosecutors determined that no charges will be filed against Baker.

The reason for that is Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” (aka “Shoot First”) law, which was drafted by the NRA and enacted in 2005. The law eliminates the common law duty to use every reasonable means available to retreat prior to using deadly force, which the Florida Supreme Court had legitimized by explaining, “Human life is precious, and deadly combat should be avoided if at all possible when imminent danger to oneself can be avoided.” The “Stand Your Ground” law states that any individual who is in a place where he/she has a legal right to be, and who is “not engaged in an unlawful activity...has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” Individuals using lethal force in this manner are immune from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits.

The law has been invoked in at least 93 cases in Florida involving 65 deaths, a recent St. Petersburg Times review found. "Whether it's trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn't want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you're encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn't be used,” says Miami Police Chief John Timoney. The numbers bear that out—“Justifiable homicides” in Florida have increased from 43 the year the law was enacted to 105 in 2009.

The NRA couldn’t be happier with the results, calling its law “common-sense.” To the NRA, Thomas Baker was another “Armed Citizen” to be celebrated, and that is exactly what the lobby did, proudly announcing on the NRA News Twitter feed: “Florida: Jogger won't be charged in fatal Town 'N Country shooting.”

The family and friends who loved Carlos Mustelier feel differently. Vasilisa Akishina, a classmate and friend of Mustelier, laid flowers at the intersection where he was killed and reminisced about how, "he always made everybody smile." “He was just so generous with everything,” she recalled. Some speculated that there might have been an ulterior motive in the shooting, and referred to an earlier altercation Mustelier had with Baker's younger brother. But perhaps Dianela Gonzaez, Mustelier’s sister, summed up the absurdity of the incident best: "I know that he thought my brother had a gun. But I mean, it was eight shots fired. How do you shoot someone eight times in self-defense? That makes no sense."

No one should paint Carlos Mustelier as a hero in this incident—he was wrong to confront and attack Baker that night. On the flip side, Baker is no hero either. It’s hard to pinpoint the definition of “Looking for Trouble,” but leaving one’s house after midnight with $950 in cash and a loaded handgun must be close. And to fire repeatedly on an unarmed teenager—including three times in the back after he had turned to flee—is murder plain and simple, no matter what the NRA-drafted law in Florida now calls it.

What should have been a fistfight became a tragedy. A young man with his entire life ahead of him has been taken from his loved ones prematurely and unnecessarily. To the NRA, this is “good law” and “good order.” To those of us with a conscience who believe in the notion of a civilized society, it is anathema, and we must stand against it.

1 comment:

  1. this law, that has caused killings to rise fro 42 to 105, that in itself seems like a good reason to repeal it. Like the incident with Carlos, that boy didn't deserve death.
    more recently is the killing of Trayvon Martin, and there have been others.
    This is a bad law.