Despite an outcry from civil rights groups, a call for close examination by President Barack Obama and even a 1960s-style sit-in at the Florida governor’s office, a jury’s verdict that a former neighborhood watch volunteer was justified in shooting an unarmed black teenager is unlikely to spur change to any of the “stand your ground” self-defense laws in various states.
George Zimmerman, a 29-year-old former neighborhood watch volunteer, was acquitted this month of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman told police he shot Martin only after the African-American teenager physically attacked him. But Martin’s family and supporters say Zimmerman, who identifies as Hispanic, racially profiled Martin as a potential criminal and wrongly pursued him.
Zimmerman’s lawyers decided not to pursue a pretrial immunity hearing allowed by Florida’s stand-your-ground law. But jurors were told in final instructions by Circuit Judge Debra Nelson that they should acquit Zimmerman if they found “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.”
Before Florida’s “stand your ground” law was passed in 2005, the instruction would have read that Zimmerman “cannot justify his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating he could have avoided the need to use that force.”
Since the law was enacted, justifiable homicides in Florida have risen from an annual average of 13.2 between 2001 and 2005 to an average of 42 between 2006 and 2012, including a record 66 in 2012, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
FBI data have shown similar increases in some states that enacted similar laws, such as Texas, while others haven’t seen an uptick.
At least 22 states have laws similar to Florida’s, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many are conservative and lean toward laws that defend gun owners’ rights. So far, there does not appear to be an appetite in Florida and other states to repeal or change the laws, which generally eliminate a person’s duty to retreat in the face of a serious physical threat. In fact, some states are moving in the opposite direction.
Since the Florida jury’s verdict, the Republican governors of Florida, Arizona and Georgia have all reiterated their support of “stand your ground” laws.
“The debate about ‘stand your ground’ laws largely reproduces existing divisions in American politics, particularly between blacks and whites and between Democrats and Republicans,” said John Sides, associate professor of political science at George Washington University.
Beyond Florida, the states that have some form of a “stand your ground” law include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Speaking recently to a convention of the NAACP in Orlando, Fla., U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Martin shooting demonstrates a need to re-examine the laws. The laws “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense” and increase the possibility of deadly confrontations, he said.
Obama said the nation needed to do some “soul-searching.” He questioned whether a law could really promote peace and security if it sent the message that someone who is armed “has the right to use those firearms even if there is a way for them to exit from a situation.”
“By standing his ground, George Zimmerman was able to get away with murdering a 17-year-old black man,” said Chelsea Jones, a student who spoke at a Dallas rally. “I can only imagine what the black community can achieve by standing their ground.”
Even entertainer Stevie Wonder has joined the outcry, vowing not to perform in Florida and other states with “stand your ground” laws on the books. The Rev. Al Sharpton suggested that the law’s opponents might boycott Florida orange juice, and other groups want to boycott the state’s tourist destinations. Both are multibillion-dollar industries.
Florida state Sen. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said the Zimmerman verdict was a “wake-up call” that should at least open fresh debate on “stand your ground” laws.
He noted that in the wake of the 2011 acquittal of Casey Anthony in the killing of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, Florida lawmakers passed legislation making it a felony for a parent or guardian to fail to report a missing child within 36 hours. Caylee’s disappearance was not reported for 31 days.
“We are calling for the same type of action,” Smith said.
But The Associated Press has found scant support for repeal of the laws in Florida and elsewhere. Scott told reporters he agreed with the findings of a task force he appointed on the subject after Martin’s shooting, which recommended no changes to the state’s “stand your ground” law. Of the protesters in his Capitol office, Scott said, “I think it is great that people are exercising their voices.”
After Holder’s speech, the National Rifle Association, which strongly backs the laws and holds enormous sway in many state legislatures, issued a statement claiming that Obama’s administration was aiming more at the broader political goal of restricting gun rights.
“The attorney general fails to understand that self-defense is not a concept, it’s a fundamental human right,” said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. “To send a message that legitimate self-defense is to blame is unconscionable.”
In fact, in states with “stand your ground” laws similar to Florida’s, the trend has been toward greater gun rights. In Wisconsin, for example, Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 signed a castle doctrine law, which provides criminal immunity and protection from civil suits for homeowners and business owners who use deadly force self-defense.
Wisconsin and other states also have passed open carry measures that allow people with concealed carry permits to display their handguns openly in a holster.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, appeared on NBC television’s “Meet the Press” and called the laws “one of the things that has incited and ignited, I believe, this movement across the nation, which I think is the beginning of a new civil rights movement.”
Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said during the show that the question now is whether it’s proper for the federal government to tell states with stand-your-ground laws how to change or remake them. His answer: “No. I mean, this is something that’s going to have to be worked out state by state.”