It is a case that recalls the grotesque injustice of Emmett Till's. I'm referring to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and if you're not familiar with this terrible and senseless tragedy, the grim details are chronicled in lollydee's comprehensive post here.
Two weeks later, the shooter has not been charged by police, and may well never be, in part due to Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self defense law enacted seven years ago. This statute has effectively redefined longstanding principles of what constitutes 'self defense'. It has since served as the legislative template for similar laws in fourteen other states. "Stand Your Ground", otherwise referred to as "Shoot First" is a stupendous example of how a bad legislative solution in search of a nonexistent problem has opened a Pandora's box of negative consequences. Trayvon Martin was not the only victim of the "Stand Your Ground" misfire, and sadly he won't be the last.
How can armed assailant stalk and gun down an unarmed child and avoid criminal prosecution by claiming 'self defense'? Perhaps a cursory background on self-defense as a legal standard can shed some light on that. Please bear with me as my understanding of laws is limited to my experience abiding by them as opposed to many on this site who professionally interpret them.
Most states follow a longstanding English legal notion that the justifiable use of deadly force first entails a 'duty to retreat'. This legal component of self defense establishes that the use of deadly force in response to an attack is justifiable only after the defendant had first avoided conflict and secondly, had taken reasonable steps to retreat and so demonstrated an intention not to fight before eventually using force.
The courts have created an exception to the duty to retreat called the “castle doctrine.” Under the castle doctrine, one does not need to retreat from your own home or place of business in order to avoid using deadly force against an assailant. The castle doctrine protects you from prosecution and to a large degree civil suit should you respond to being attacked in your own home or business by an intruder with deadly force.
It would seem that the castle doctrine would be sufficient legal protection for those citizens who have used deadly force in self defense. Enter the NRA, which lobbied Florida to redefine self defense with the "Stand Your Ground" law-
“Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you're attacked, you're supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property.”
Marion Hammer, NRA Board Member, in support of Florida's Stand Your Ground Law
The result was Florida Statute Section 776.013 which states:
"A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and 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."The statute goes on to allow that deadly force is justified if you are trying to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. If you should come across someone who is being attacked, you can use deadly force to defend him/her if the circumstances would justify that person's use of deadly force in his/her own defense. In other words, you "stand in the shoes" of the person being attacked.
While this would seem to effectively empowering any gun owner as an ad-hoc freelance police officer, it goes further by actually granting citizens more rights to use deadly force than given police officers, and with considerably less review. It's the sort of law that shields a person like Mr. Zimmerman, who, armed with a loaded handgun, went out of his way to seek opportunities to exercise his situationaly justifiable use of deadly force
A report by the South Florida Sun Sentinel vindicated these complaints, concluding, “several...accused murderers have successfully used [Florida’s] 2005 ‘Stand Your Ground’ law to prove they were the real victims. In general the "Stand Your Ground" self-defense laws allow people to defend themselves with deadly force, even in public places, when they perceive a life-threatening situation for themselves or others. Further, they would not be held accountable in criminal or civil court, even if bystanders were to be injured. While it already is legal in most cases to use deadly force against an attacker in your home, the new self-defense laws allow victims to retaliate against an attacker in public.Can you provoke a fight and 'defend yourself' to the death? In states with "Stand Your Ground" laws, the answer is yes.
If you go by Florida Department of Law Enforcement numbers, justifiable homicide rates have tripled since the law went into effect in late 2005.The reality is we have always had the right to defend ourselves. The true purpose of "Stand Your Ground" laws is to remove any responsibility to walk away from a deadly confrontation.
Does this law actually promote vigilantism?
In this case, Mr. Zimmerman did stand his ground. He not only refused to back down from a fight, by his own account he provoked it. And although he was neither protecting his property or family, he shot a promising athelete and high school junior who was merely walking on a public sidewalk after buying his younger brother some candy.
Mr. Zimmerman's use of deadly force, as his defenders have noted, that may spring from the common selnse notion that it is better to be 'judged by twelve, than carried by six'. Given the protection of the statute, there is little legal downside (other than the moral implications of killing an innocent person) to shooting first if there is the slightest chance that harm could come to the likes of Mr. Zimmerman.
This is precisely why the NRA works so hard to push these laws forward. Given the possible Mr. Zimmermans of the world out there, it follows that a reasonable course of action is to better arm oneself with the very product that funds the NRA. In a world of folks 'standing their ground', perhaps the best defense of aggressive self defense is to carry and conceal superior firepower.
Trayvon Martin was openly carrying a can of iced tea and concealing a bag of skittles.
Look where that got him.