WASHINGTON — The “Stand Your Ground” laws in Florida and other states should all be repealed. At best, they are redundant. At worst, as in the Trayvon Martin killing, they are nothing but a license to kill.
Police in Sanford, Fla., cited the statute as grounds for their decision not to file charges against Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. Martin, 17, was strolling home from a convenience store, armed with an iced tea and a bag of Skittles, when Zimmerman — a Neighborhood Watch volunteer and wannabe police officer — spotted him and decided he looked suspicious.
Zimmerman, who is 28, happened to be armed with a handgun. He followed Martin, despite instructions from a 911 operator not to do so. They had an encounter that left Zimmerman suffering from minor injuries and Martin dead on the ground from a gunshot wound. While we don’t know exactly what happened, we know that Zimmerman initiated the contact by stalking a young man who had done nothing more sinister than walk down the street wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
Police decided to release Zimmerman without charges because of the Stand Your Ground law. The relevant part of the statute says that “a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked … 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.”
Zimmerman claimed self-defense, was given the benefit of the doubt required by law and released.
This was a shocking travesty, as we now know. The “person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked” was Martin. Under the Florida law, as I read it, he had every right to feel he was in “imminent peril of death or great bodily harm” from the stranger who was following him. He had every right to confront Zimmerman — to stand his ground — and even to use deadly force, if necessary, to defend himself.
Imagine that Martin, not Zimmerman, had been carrying a legal handgun — and that it was Zimmerman who ended up dead. It seems to be that the law should have compelled police to release Martin, a young African-American in a hoodie, without charges.
Somehow, I doubt that would have happened.
The consensus view, which I’ve heard expressed by supporters of Stand Your Ground, is that police were wrong to extend the law’s self-defense immunity to Zimmerman so quickly without a more thorough investigation — and that given what we have learned about Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin, the law does not seem to apply.
But then why does Florida, or any other state, need this statute? State laws already allowed the use of deadly force in self-defense. By making explicit that the person who feels threatened has no obligation to retreat, all the state Legislature accomplished was to lessen the odds that a hot-tempered confrontation would be allowed to cool down without violence.
The Florida law took effect in 2005. Five years later, the Tampa Bay Times said that reports of justifiable homicide across the state had tripled. The newspaper found cases in which the protection of Stand Your Ground had been invoked by persons who felt — perhaps with good reason, perhaps not — that they faced imminent attack in their homes. Those incidents were at least in keeping with the intent of the legislation. But the paper also found the law being used to excuse violence committed during fights at house parties, disputes between neighbors and disagreements in public parks.
“Gangsters are using this law to have gunfights,” Tallahassee state’s attorney Willie Meggs told the Times.
Following Florida’s lead, about 20 states have enacted similar legislation. I doubt you will be surprised to hear that the National Rifle Association has lobbied hard to get these dangerous and unnecessary statutes approved.
These laws encourage hotheads to go into potential confrontations with loaded firearms. They give permission to shoot first and ask questions later. This may be good for gun manufacturers, funeral homes and the NRA, but it’s tragic for justice in America.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com. (c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group