Inequality in the state of Florida has become increasingly dangerous. Despite extensive urban planning and social policies that maintain the segregation of the haves from the have-nots, interaction and even conflict between them are unavoidable. The relationship of extremes in the state’s major metropolitan areas is both interdependent and alienating — the residents of the opulent suburbs and exurbs are dependent on the labor of poor service workers who live primarily in the depressed working-class neighborhoods of the urban centers and commute daily, mainly via mass transit, to their jobs. In such a sharply stratified society, social friction is inevitable and every contact is a potential flash point.
Currently, the state of Florida dedicates substantial resources to the suppression of class conflict. It maintains the third largest prisoner population in the nation, following only California and Texas, and, in the South, it is second only to Texas in the total number of law enforcement employees. Florida also has the third largest death row population, again trailing California and Texas. Significantly, Florida was the first state to restore the death penalty after the national moratorium on capital punishment ended and has been a consistent executioner ever since.
More to the present issue, however, is the fact that Florida was also the first state to enlist its citizens in armed class struggle when it passed a concealed handgun law (CHL) in 1987. Written and promoted by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the powerful gun manufacturers’ lobby, Florida’s CHL allowed citizens to carry firearms and use them to defend themselves against criminal attack. The law, however, had an important stipulation — a duty to retreat. It stated quite clearly that a citizen was not justified in using deadly force if she could retreat from the confrontation to safety. If the criminal attack took place inside the citizen’s home, she was allowed to “stand her ground” and use deadly force only if she feared death or bodily injury and couldn’t escape.
Florida’s new “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) statute, signed into law in April, extends the use of deadly force to protect private property. It is now easier to invoke the so-called “castle” doctrine that is based on the maxim that “one’s home is one’s castle.” Under the old law, the person who killed someone in her home had the burden of proving that she was in fear for her safety. Under SYG, all the shooter has to do is establish that the person she killed was “unlawfully” or “forcibly” entering her home. In addition, SYG removes the aforementioned duty to retreat and expands the definition of “castle” to include private vehicles. This extension of the castle doctrine is clearly intended to address the crime of carjacking — one of the crimes most feared by the affluent when they venture outside of their gated communities in their luxury automobiles and SUVs. Finally, SYG allows armed citizens to use deadly force in public places if they “reasonably believe” it is necessary to prevent the “imminent” use of deadly force against them or others. This provision of the law is intended to cover the affluent when they are most vulnerable to robbery — such as in parking lots or in the event of a vehicular breakdown.
Inequality and Crime
Twenty years ago, a diverse group of sociologists clearly established that social injustice experienced by oppressed groups in society leads to a state of frustration and anger, which in turn leads to hostility and criminal behavior. Criminal activity is most likely, these investigators observed, when the deprived can witness wealth and luxury firsthand but cannot partake of it through conventional means. It was also twenty years ago when the de-industrialization of the U.S. economy was in full swing, producing vast fortunes for the capitalist class and widespread economic dislocations for working people. During the next two decades, income and wealth inequality in the U.S. skyrocketed to historic heights.
These two decades have also witnessed the neo-conservative ideologues and their political machines seize control of local, state, and the federal governments. Predictably, no meaningful social or economic reforms for the relief of the poor have been forthcoming. The crises of the working class have been met with neglect and repression — disenfranchisement, dismantling of the social safety net, expansion of the police state, and mass incarceration. Playing on public fear of crime, the neo-conservative politicians have also exploited the opportunity to arm the affluent against the dispossessed.
The NRA is currently following the same strategy it used to champion CHLs in the 1980s and 90s — after the initial victory in Florida it is lobbying to have its model SYG law adopted in other states. The agenda of the NRA is clear enough — handgun sales are stagnant, and the new laws should stimulate the market — it worked with the CHLs. The impact of the law on actual shootings is something else. The widespread adoption of CHLs did not produce a significant increase in civilian shootings nor should the SYG laws. One thing, however, is for certain — the Florida SYG law, which took effect on October 1, has extended the right to use deadly force in defense of private property and taken it to the streets of Florida. As a symbolic victory, it is a sign of the times.
Richard D. Vogel is an independent socialist writer. He has recently completed a book, Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People.