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Would Texas' Stand Your Ground Law Protect The Dallas Officers Who Shot Unarmed Suspects?

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Since August 10, Dallas police officers have shot six people, killing four of them. Most were armed and a threat to others. One, Andrew Scott Gaynier, was unarmed, though police say he lunged at the off-duty officer who shot him.

The events surrounding the shooting of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Missouri, the fact that Gaynier was unarmed, but apparently enough of a threat for an officer to use deadly force,and memories of Trayvon Martin got us here at Unfair Park doing a little free associating. What if Gaynier's shooter was just another civilian, not a police officer? And how would Texas' "stand your ground" law come into play?

First, some historical context. In the last 10 years, according to a search of The Dallas Morning News archives on the public library's website, Dallas officers have shot 10 men who were not carrying weapons. In the same time span, there were three officer-involved shootings in which there was some debate as to whether the suspect was unarmed.

In the past two years, Dallas police have shot four unarmed men, killing three:

  • James Harper, who got into a fight with an officer after a foot chase from an alleged drug house on Dixon Street before being killed, on July 24, 2012;
  • Clinton Allen, who police say was choking the officer who shot and killed him, on March 10, 2013;
  • Kelvion Walker, who was shot, but not killed, while sitting in a car with his hands up, on December 9, 2013;
  • and Andrew Scott Gaynier, who was shot and killed because he allegedly rushed Officer Antonio Hudson after Gaynier attempted to enter a moving vehicle with a family inside, on August 10.

But it's not just police who open up on unarmed men. More than 20 states, including Texas, have expanded their "castle doctrine" or "stand you ground" laws that determine when it's OK for a civilian to shoot and then claim self defense. According to a 2013 report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, "Stand Your Ground states have on average experienced a 53 percent increase in homicides deemed justifiable in the years following passage of the law, compared with a 5 percent decrease in states without Stand Your Ground statutes during the same period -- an increase disproportionately borne by the black community."

The laws' notion of what constitutes self-defense can be fairly expansive, so we wondered: What if the officer who shot Gaynier was just another civilian, not an officer? The answer, it seems, is it doesn't matter.

See also: An Off-Duty Police Officer Shot and Killed an Unarmed Man in Oak Cliff Last Night After a Deadly Shooting by Dallas Police, a South Dallas Neighborhood Shows Up and Speaks Out

In Texas, a "stand your ground" defense is viable you have the right to be at the location where you kill someone and you didn't do anything to provoke them. For instance, you have the right to enjoy the sidewalk, so if someone attacked you there for no reason, you have the right to defend yourself. Whether it should be with a gun is a different matter.

Police officers and ordinary citizens have the same right to defend themselves, says Sandra Thompson, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and an expert on stand your ground laws. The difference is only the officer has the authority to tell people what to do.

"The officer can say, 'Don't move, you're under arrest,'" Thompson says, "and if you don't they can tackle you."

In terms of the law, if you kill someone in self-defense, you have to prove that you either knew or had good reason to believe that that someone wanted to cause you bodily harm or kill you, Thompson says. It's the same for police officers.

The difficulty is proving that what happened was actually life-threatening. Let's take Gaynier's case, for example. The police say Gaynier rushed at Officer Hudson. "Is that a threat of death?" Thompson asked. "That's the issue."

Other confusing factors play in. For instance, in the heat of the moment, the officer, fearing for his life, might not have had the time to think to react in any other way, Thompson says. Also, she says, the officer reasonably could be said to be defending himself if the officer perceived the rushing man to be much bigger than him -- i.e., could physically harm him in a fight -- and thus posed a threat to his life. "That would be enough," Thompson says.

Of course, the question we didn't ask is whether it's right, reasonable or smart to have laws that make it so much easier for someone -- cop or civilian -- to shoot someone without legal consequences. We'll let you tackle that one in the comments.

Send your story tips to the author, Sky Chadde.

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