Teenager Trayvon Martin was gunned down in Sanford, Florida while walking home from a convenience store on February 26. The alleged gunman, George Zimmermann, was the head of his local neighborhood watch group, and claimed the shooting was committed in self-defense. The killing has caused a great deal of controversy from critics of the Florida police that have not arrested Zimmermann on any grounds. Martin, being a 17-year-old African-American, has brought race-relations to the forefront of politics and policy debate once again. President Obama has openly voiced his sympathies for the Martin family. Zimmermann has yet to be indicted on any charges.
The focal point of this policy debate however is Florida’s highly controversial “Stand Your Ground” law. This statute states that a person may use deadly force in self-defense when there is a reasonable belief of threat, without an obligation to retreat first. Proponents of this legislation state that it is common sense to be able to defend yourself in hostile situations while opponents state that it is the right to commit murder in many cases. The National Rifle Association lobbied extensively for the passage of such laws in the early 2000’s. The interest group strategized and invested in states that were likely to pass the law Since the Martin killing, the NRA has halted lobbying efforts in Alaska. Last week, a New York Times op-ed piece by John F. Timoney cited that since 2005 when the law was passed. Florida homicides that are considered “justifiable” have nearly tripled.
The essence of this argument is whether citizens are qualified to handle “threatening” situations, especially when lethal force is involved. In most states, there are laws that state the citizen has a right to retreat if they can do it safely. Police officers do not have the right to retreat, which indicates the primary difference between the police, who are trained to handle high-stress situations, and the average citizen. Journalist David Ovalle covered the law for the Miami Herald. During an interview for NPR on “All Things Considered,” a news program on National Public Radio, he assessed the law in saying that there are a greater number of cases that have not been charged. Ovalle said about Stand Your Ground, “There’s been a handful of cases and some very high-profile cases here in South Florida in which a judge has granted outright immunity.” Professor Gregroy Bordelon, lecturer of law at the University, explained that removing the “Duty to Retreat” caluse of these types of laws would most likely make self defense trials very unclear. He stated, “Removing the duty to retreat would open the door to more difficult questions of the ‘reasonableness’ standard being proven in defense to criminal prosecutions, making it more difficult for prosecutors and criminal defendants alike, while causing increased burdens on the judicial systems with long trials, etc.”
While Zimmermann defends himself under this law, there is still a detail of the case that may be crucial in deciding whether or not his claim is valid. It is believed, due to the released 911 phone calls he made the night of the shooting, that he followed and pursued Martin, possibly causing a confrontation. While the law grants citizens the right to defend, it does not give them any sort of permission to act as vigilantes and go after suspects. This detail has many questioning Zimmermann’s intentions on the night of the alleged incident.
While Zimmermann defends himself under this law, there is still a detail of the case that may be crucial in deciding whether or not his claim is valid. It is believed due to the released 911 phone calls he made the night of the shooting, that he followed and pursued Martin, possibly causing a confrontation. While the law grants citizens the right to defend, it does not give them any sort of permission to act as vigilantes and go after suspects. This detail has many questioning Zimmermann’s intentions on the night of the alleged incident.
Recently, some have come to the defense of Zimmermann. His brother, along with a close friend describes a man that would not have acted so irrationally unless he was in grave danger. However, Zimmermann has a history of violence and a criminal record including assault charges.
As of now, Rick Scott, the Governor of Florida, has launched an investigative panel to look into the Stand Your Ground Law and find whether it is effective or detrimental to the state. While Zimmermann remains free, the Martin family, along with countless other Americans grieve the unfortunate death of young Trayvon. “We need certainty when peoples’ lives are at issue,” said Bordelon.