Florida’s “stand your ground” law is highly controversial, and is based on the idea of self-defense and the right to use deadly force to protect oneself from harm. This essay argues that this law should not be repealed, and that the law is both logical and helpful for protecting the lives and rights of law-abiding citizens. The professional writers at Ultius cover controversial topics in a wide range of subjects.
Grounds for “standing your ground”
The phrase “stand-your-ground” is commonly used to describe legislation of the kind that has been enacted in numerous American states regarding matters of self-defense. The core principal of stand-your-ground invokes the older concept derived from British common law, and previous forms of American legislation, that a law-abiding person has “no duty to retreat.” The concept of “no duty to retreat” means that a person has no legal requirement or responsibility to remove themselves from a scenario where they may be in danger of being killed or physically injured by a person who is acting against them in an unlawful manner. Instead, the person who is being threatened may legally “stand their ground.” It then becomes legally permissible for the person being threatened to use lethal force if they have a reasonable suspicion that the potential attacker is threatening them with imminent bodily harm.
State sanctioned “stand your ground” scenarios
While specific gun control laws vary by state, a majority of states have adopted some variation of the stand-your-ground law. The most prevalent of these is the so-called “castle doctrine.” This legal doctrine is derived from the common sentiment that “a man’s home is his castle” and states that a person who is being threatened in their home (or, by extension, in their vehicle or place of business) has no duty to retreat, and may be granted immunity from criminal prosecution for standing their ground if they kill an intruder or attacker (Johnston). No less than forty-six of the fifty American states maintain such a law. Additionally, twenty-two of the states extend the concept of stand-your-ground to public spaces as well. What this means is that a person who encounters a dangerous scenario involving an attacker in a public area (such as streets, parks, and public or commercial buildings) likewise has no duty to retreat, and may use lethal force for the purpose of self-defense in such a situation as well.
The murder of Trayvon Martin
Florida is one of the states where legislation of this kind has been enacted. Florida’s stand-your-ground law has become highly controversial and a matter of intense public debate because of the case involving the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman (State v. Zimmerman). The shooting took place in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012. George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic male in his late twenties, was a member of the neighborhood watch for his housing community. Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was apparently returning from a convenience store, was spotted in the community by Zimmerman. Martin was regarded as acting suspiciously by Zimmerman, who proceeded to call the police. When the police arrived, they discovered Zimmerman holding a gun, and with injuries that indicated he had been in a fight. Martin lay dead nearby. The subsequent unfolding of events became a matter of intense national media attention and had a polarizing effect on public opinion and made George Zimmerman a recurring media topic.
Acquittal under scrutiny
Zimmerman was taken into custody, questioned by the police, and then released. While the police accepted Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense and did not charge him with any crime, Martin’s family did not believe Zimmerman’s version of how their son died. They publicly disputed the finding of the police that Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin was a justifiable homicide, and the case began to receive national media attention. Numerous public officials, including President Obama, began to call for further investigation. A special prosecutor was appointed by the Florida governor and Zimmerman was eventually charged with second-degree murder. After a highly publicized and emotionally charged trial, Zimmerman was found not guilty. The verdict was a widely disputed one, with many people feeling that Zimmerman had gotten away with murder. Public opinion about the verdict was also strongly divided along the lines of race, gender, and political affiliation. Such miscarriages of justice would contribute to the eventual formation of activist movement “Black Lives Matter” which oppose such uses of deadly force.
Vigilante killing of an unarmed man deemed “self defense”
Florida’s stand-your-ground law was a very significant factor in the controversy over the Zimmerman-Martin case. Florida is one of the twenty-two states where the “no duty to retreat” concept applies to public areas as well as private dwellings. After the Martin shooting and the initial decision of the Sanford police to not charge Zimmerman with criminal homicide, the stand-your-ground law began to receive widespread criticism. The critics regarded the law as an encouragement to vigilantism. It was believed by the critics that the existence of the law had contributed to Zimmerman’s decision to kill Martin, even though Martin was unarmed, and had shielded Zimmerman from prosecution for the excessive use of force or accusations of gun violence. However, Zimmerman never actually invoked the stand-your-ground law as part of his defense (Lemieux). Instead, Zimmerman’s lawyers argued that Zimmerman was in imminent danger from the physical assault that was allegedly being inflicted on him by Martin.
Call to repeal “stand your ground” laws
Clearly, the Martin shooting and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal have brought the question of stand-your-ground laws to the forefront of public debate, at least for the time being. No doubt there will continue to be ongoing calls for the repeal of such laws. It is also clear this is an emotionally charged issue given its relationship to wider public issues involving guns, crime, and racism. Whatever course this public debate follows in the future, the evidence is clear that the repeal of Florida’s stand-your-ground law, and comparable laws in other states, would be a serious mistake.
“Stand your ground” as a contributor to race related killings
Professor John R. Lott of the University of Chicago is one of the nation’s leading experts on the relationship between gun laws and violent crime. Lott has gathered an impressive amount of data which indicates that critics of stand-your-ground laws, while no doubt well-intentioned, are also often uninformed concerning the impact of such laws (Lott). The critics of stand-your-ground laws have suggested that the law has a negative impact upon African-Americans, noting that blacks are often stereotyped as criminals. It is believed by these critics that stand-your-ground makes it more probable that the racism-inspired murder of blacks, even if this perceived racism is on the unconscious level, will increase while providing a legal shield to the perpetrators. However, Lott’s research indicates that African-Americans are actually the primary beneficiaries of stand-your-ground.
The need for self-defense
African-Americans are disproportionately represented among the lower socioeconomic levels which also suffer from the highest crime rates. Further, the degree of police protection provided to these communities is much less extensive or inefficient than the protection provided to affluent, white communities. Therefore, poor blacks are not only much more likely to become the victims of violent crime, but are also in the position of having to rely on self-defense for protection to a greater degree than many other demographics. Laws which restrict the right of self-defense will make it more difficult for low income African Americans to defend themselves against violent crime, thereby increasing their likelihood of being killed or seriously injured by a criminal (Lott). Further restricting the right of self-defense will also make black crime victims more susceptible to criminal charges because of their efforts to defend themselves in crime-ridden communities where police protection is unreliable and often virtually non-existent.
Bias in the courts despite misleading statistics
While African-Americans are only thirteen percent of the American population, approximately one half of all murder victims in the United States are black. Professor Lott’s data shows that African-Americans are sixteen percent of the population of the state of Florida. Yet thirty-one percent of cases where the stand-your-ground law is invoked by defendants in criminal homicide cases involve black defendants. Further, black defendants who make use of this defense are found not guilty with an eight percent rate of greater frequency than white defendants in comparable cases. It has been pointed out that in Florida’s courts seventy two percent of defendants charged with killing a black person were acquitted or had the charges dismissed, while only fifty-nine percent of defendants charged with killing a white person were found not guilty (Lott). However, these numbers are misleading as black homicide victims are overwhelmingly killed by other blacks.
Repealing Florida’s stand-your-ground law would increase the vulnerability of the least advantaged members of American society to violent crime and increase the regularity of victims of crimes seeking state sanctioned compensation. Such repeal would place a disproportionate amount of the burden of responsibility on the victim of a crime rather than on the perpetrator. Abolishing the possibility of a stand-your-ground defense would make genuine self-defenders more vulnerable to criminal prosecution. Repeal would quite likely increase the probability of innocent victims being killed or injured by attackers. Therefore, Florida’s stand-your-ground law should remain in place.
Johnston, Philip. “An Englishman’s Home Is No Longer His Castle.” London Telegraph, 11 January 2009. Web.
Lemieux, Scott. “The Zimmerman Acquittal Isn’t About ‘Stand Your Ground’.” The American Prospect, 14 July 2013. Web.
Lott, John. R. “In Defense of Stand Your Ground Laws.” Chicago Tribune, 28 October 2013. Web.
State v. Zimmerman (2012-CF-001083-A). Web.