The following ran on the March 20, 2012, edition of the New York Times' Loyal Opposition blog. Law Professor Jeffrey Bellin is attributed in this story.
March 27, 2012
By Andrew Rosenthal
In late February, 28-year-old George Zimmerman called 911 to report that a “real suspicious guy” was walking down the street in Sanford, Fla. He decided to follow the “suspicious guy,” and later that night Mr. Zimmerman shot and killed him with a 9 mm handgun. The “suspicious guy” was a black 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin. He was unarmed, carrying only a bag of Skittles, a can of iced tea and a cellphone.
Mr. Zimmerman claimed he was acting in self-defense, and the local police decided not to arrest him, provoking outrage from many corners. The state attorney’s office for Brevard and Seminole Counties announced Tuesday that a grand jury will examine the incident next month, and the Justice Department is conducting its own investigation, as it should.
The idea that Mr. Zimmerman feared for his life seems ridiculous. Why did he find a teenager walking down the street suspicious? OK, that was a rhetorical question. He found him suspicious because he was black. (This is a classic walking-while-black case.) If Mr. Zimmerman felt threatened, why did he follow Mr. Martin? Why didn’t he stay put, as the police dispatcher advised him to do? He was, after all, nothing but an armed vigilante – not a police officer, not even a security guard, just a man who armed himself and went out looking for trouble.
What’s more ridiculous is that prosecutors may have a difficult time with the case, because Florida is a Stand Your Ground state. Stand Your Ground laws do away with the longstanding legal concept that there’s a “duty to retreat” – that the sane and sensible thing to do when confronted with a “suspicious” situation is to get the heck out of there. In Florida and a number of other states, if running for safety is an option you don’t have to take it. You can meet perceived danger with deadly force; and if you end up making a dodgy situation worse, you can fire your gun and claim self-defense. Then it’s up to the prosecution to disprove that claim.
As Jeffrey Bellin, a law professor at Southern Methodist University, told the Christian Science Monitor, “Even if you have suspicions about what motivated this, and you think there was a racial element and no justification for this shooting, the fact is he had no obligation to retreat under the law.”
I doubt the legislators who passed Stand Your Ground had this scenario in mind, or at least I hope not. Florida state Senator Oscar Brayon, who’s demanding hearings into the law, said: “I don’t think they planned for people who would go out and become vigilantes or be like some weird Batman who would go out and kill little kids like Trayvon.” Whatever their intentions, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Stand Your Ground provides too much cover for aggression. The Tampa Bay Times reported in 2010 that “justifiable homicides tripled after the law went into effect” and that it “has been invoked in at least 93 cases with 65 deaths.”
It took Fox News a while to get onto this story, but when it did, it identified the real victim – the National Rifle Association. On America Live, Trace Gallagher said: “the alleged gunman claim[ed] it was self-defense, and now anti-gun advocates say the 911 calls from some witnesses prove otherwise, and they’re using them as ammunition in a new attack on the National Rifle Association.” Later he added, “It’s important to point out that gun sales in this country have never been higher and the crime rate, says the FBI, is very low.”
I don’t think that’s important to point out at all, actually. Far more important is what Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, said in a press release: “Trayvon’s life has been lost not because of an accident.” He lost his life because a man in a state with weak gun laws left his house with a 9mm, and used it.