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New Stand Your Ground Law Makes It Easier to Claim Self Defense

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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB)--Florida is the first state in the nation to change it's stand your ground law, now shifting the burden of proof in pre-trial hearings to the prosecution instead of the defense.

Stand your ground has been cited in many shooting cases in our state since it was put in place in 2005. One recently made national headlines, when a 74-year-old retired Tampa police captain named Curtis Reeves shot and killed Chad Oulsen during an argument in a Pasco County movie theater. Reeves says he felt threatened and was simply standing his ground.

"I realized that I was in a life or death struggle," Reeves said.

But Oulsen's widow says Reeves was the only threat.

"He was steps above us, the other guy--he was towering over us," Nicole Oulsen said. "How is that a threat?" 

In a pretrial hearing, the judge rejected Reeves' use of the stand your ground defense and he now faces a trial for second degree murder. But it's that gray area of self-defense that's at the heart of so many of these cases.

The law allows people to use deadly force when they fear death or great bodily harm. Up until now, it was up to the person who pulled the trigger to prove why they were in fear for their life.

But under the new law, the burden of proof belongs to the prosecution.

Mike Young owns Young Guns and Safety in Sarasota. He says it's an important protection for those who are truly acting in self defense.

"The whole court system is innocent until proven guilty, except for that," Young said. "Now we're all on the same page, which is really cool."

Young says the law allows you to protect yourself when all else fails.

"We have to be able to defend ourselves and those around us," Young said. "When seconds count, law enforcement is minutes away."

However, opponents like Carol Rescigno of the Brady Campaign say this change could embolden gun owners to shoot before thinking.

"If I steal from you, can you take my life? If I paint graffiti on your house, can you take my life?" Rescigno said.

I'ts a choice she says is better left up to the justice system.

"I think the possibility is that the vigilantes of the world become more important than the people who don't have guns," Rescigno said.

Rescigno points to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that homicides in Florida increased 24% since the stand your ground law passed and firearm related killings increased 32%. She worries we could now see those numbers go up even more.

Sarasota defense attorney and former prosecutor Jeff Young says that's unlikely.

"Even if you give them more protections in court, I can guarantee you when you're faced with that situation on the street, the last thing that's going through your mind is what's going to happen at the State Attorney's office now that they have the burden," Young said.

Young says it will relieve the pressure on the defense and force the State Attorney's office to take a closer look at each case before deciding to file criminal charges.

"You don't have to call your own witnesses and present your own evidence. They have to do all of that stuff before you have to do anything," Young said.

Young at Young Guns and Safety says the right could be abused, but it's still one that each person deserves.

"You have bad apples in every bunch, but it doesn't make the whole collective bad."