This article originally appeared in The Nation.
When Florida Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson issued the jury instructions in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, those instructions declared that:
If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
Though Zimmerman’s lawyers chose to mount a traditional self-defense argument on their client’s behalf—eschewing a defense specifically based on the controversial Florida law that permits individuals who feel threatened to use deadly force even when they could retreat to safety—the role played in the case by the “stand your ground” law, and the theory that underpins it, has come into stark relief in the days since Zimmerman was acquitted.
The judge’s instructions, and a juror’s referencing of “stand your ground” in her discussion of the deliberations, serve to highlight long-term concerns about laws that permit the use of deadly force even when violence might be averted.Civil rights groups have objected to “stand your ground” laws in Florida and dozens of other states in their responses to the Zimmerman verdict. So, too, have prominent figures such as musician Stevie Wonder, who announced Sunday that he would boycott “stand your ground” states. And on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention in Orlando that states must reconsider laws that contribute to ‘more violence than they prevent.”
Florida’s “stand your ground” law has from the beginning been a part of the controversy over the February 26, 2012, killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was not charged for forty-four days following the shooting of the youth. Only after national protests led Florida Governor Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor was Zimmerman charged with second-degree murder.
Now, despite attempts by casual commentators to suggest that “stand your ground” was not a factor in this case, serious observers are coming to recognize the significance of this week’s observation by The Miami Herald that “Zimmerman waived his right to the Stand Your Ground immunity hearing, a pre-trial event that’s not spelled out in statute. But he was afforded the protections of Stand Your Ground, which is embedded in Florida’s self-defense laws. Its language, found in statute 766.012, was tailored to the Zimmerman trial’s jury instructions…”
At least one juror says that “stand your ground” considerations figured in the deliberations by a jury that was reportedly was divided over whether to convict Zimmerman.
Responding to a question about how the jurors reached their “not guilty” verdict—despite concerns regarding Zimmerman’s actions prior to the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin —the juror justified her decision by telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “Well, because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground. He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right.”
More than a year ago, initial protests over the killing of Trayvon Martin brought national attention to Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which was enacted in 2005—and to similar laws that the Center for Media and Democracy explains have been enacted in twenty-six states over the past decade, with prodding from the American Legislative Exchange Council and the National Rifle Association. “Florida’s dangerous ‘shoot first’ law allowed Trayvon’s killer to walk free without charges for more than a month. ‘Shoot First’ legalizes vigilante homicide, has demonstrated racial bias in its application, and has led to an increase in gun-related deaths in the more than two dozen states where it has been passed into law,” argued Color of Change, as part of its campaign to strike down “stand your ground” laws in states across the country. “These laws give individual gun owners a greater right to shoot and kill than the rules of engagement for our military during times of war grant to soldiers in war zones. ‘Shoot First’ must be repealed now to protect families and communities and prevent senseless deaths.”
Now, with the controversy over the acquittal of Zimmerman, the Florida law has come back into focus, as have the laws in states across the country.
In his response to the Zimmerman verdict, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Benjamin Todd Jealous said: “We stand with Trayvon’s family and we are called to act. We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state, and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed.”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “Sadly, all the facts in this tragic case will probably never be known. But one fact has long been crystal clear: ‘shoot-first’ laws like those in Florida can inspire dangerous vigilantism and protect those who act recklessly with guns. Such laws—drafted by gun lobby extremists in Washington—encourage deadly confrontations by enabling people to shoot first and argue ‘justifiable homicide’ later.”
Attorney General Holder picked up on that theme in his remarks to the NAACP Tuesday, saying:
Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation’s attention, it’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if—and the “if” is important—if no safe retreat is available.
But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common-sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely. By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety.
The list of resulting tragedies is long and, unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent. It is our collective obligation; we must stand OUR ground to ensure—we must stand our ground to ensure that our laws reduce violence, and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent.
A national “No More Stand Your Ground” petition drive has already attracted more than 50,000 signers.
The Seattle Times has editorialized that “the single best memorial to Trayvon Martin—Justice for Trayvon—is repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.”
The movement to repeal “stand your ground” laws is growing in the states. In Georgia, state Senate Democratic whip Vincent Fort has introduced legislation that would replace that state’s “stand your ground” law with new legislation requiring anyone with a gun to withdraw from a threatening circumstance before using deadly force. In New Hampshire, Democratic state Representative Steve Shurtleff has been working to overturn that state’s “stand your ground” law and he’s attracted the support of the Concord Monitor newspaper, which says, “New Hampshire’s law should be repealed before someone here is killed by a gunman intent on standing his ground when he could instead walk away from a fight. Many Americans have concluded that it was Zimmerman, not Martin who ‘got away,’ despite what the gunman said before the shooting. Making that less likely in the future is a cause we must all embrace.
In Florida, State Senator Geraldine Thompson of Orlando, D-Orlando, has renewed a push to overturn the original “Stand Your Ground” law, saying, “Florida has to fix this problem because Florida created this problem with the kind of law that we placed on the books, so we have to change the law or we are going to see more Trayvon Martins.” Members of the Dream Defenders group occupied Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office Tuesday, seeking a commitment from the governor to call a special session of the legislature to address the issue.
Stevie Wonder is on the side of their struggle.
“I decided today that until the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law is abolished in Florida, I will never perform there again,” the musician declared after the verdict was announced.
But Wonder, a veteran civil rights campaigner who played an instrumental role in establishing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday, and who was an outspoken critic of apartheid during the era when international artists refused to play South Africa’s Sun City resort. went further. Recognizing that the fight against “stand your ground” is not just a Florida struggle, he added: “As a matter of fact, wherever I find that law exists, I will not perform in that state or in that part of the world.”
|John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. His most recent book is The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition. A co-founder of the media reform organization Free Press, Nichols is co-author with Robert W. McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again and Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy.|