The media buzz surrounding the Trayvon Martin case has been intense. With the nation piecing together what exactly contributed to such a shocking event, much of the news has centered around George Zimmerman and the issue of racism. Yet, some have also pointed out that there is another contributing factor written into our legal system. It is colloquially known as Florida’s “stand your ground” law. But what does this law really say, and can it be held responsible for the death of Trayvon Martin?
The “stand your ground” law passed the state legislature in 2005 with the intention of granting legal protection to shooters when the case involves the issue self-defense. Lawmakers at the time felt that this was simply a law ensuring the ability to use a gun to prevent immediate harm to yourself or others. However, cases since then have demonstrated that the law could be interpreted to apply even to cases where the person’s life isn’t in immediate danger. The most well known, of course, being the Trayvon Martin case in which George Zimmerman is accused of shooting a young man carrying only a pack of Skittles. But this incident is far from being the sole case in which force was applied to an unarmed individual. Take for instance, the case of Gregory Stewart who shot a man he believed was attempting to break into his home. Once again, the man turned out to be unarmed and Stewart was charged with aggravated battery. However, the case has since been dropped.
So, what is it about this law that makes it different from other self-defense statutes? The answer lies in the language of the bill itself. In the text of the statute it states that a person that “believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself” is justified in using force to terminate the threat. It continues on to grant several exemptions to this legal protection for persons who are either legally allowed to enter the home or are seeking to remove a person for which they have the legal guardianship. In these cases the shooter is automatically viewed to be using unjustified force since the victim had a reasonable motive for being on the property. Another exemption is granted for cases in which the shooter was provoking an attack.
One issue lies with the word “believe” and its use in the bill. George Zimmerman has attested that he believed his life was in immediate danger; however, the circumstances of the case have cast doubt on this fact with many arguing that it was unreasonable for him to draw this conclusion. This has led many legal officials, including the judge in the aforementioned Stewart case to say that the law is confusing and misleading to those who find themselves in such situations. There is also the matter of what is commonly known as the “duty to retreat.” Most self-defense statutes state within their text that a member of the public who is considering the use of force during a crime allow time to see if the hostile intends violence to those involved. This is intended to prevent the would-be-shooter from using force on the suspicion of violence, but the clause is oddly absent in Florida’s legal system. It is this clause in particular that has caused some members of the public to demand that the law be repealed, interpreting the absence of such a clause as contributing to the idea that one can shoot first and ask questions later.
Would the alteration or repeal of this law have saved Trayvon Martin? People cannot truly know. However, it seems unlikely that a change in the law alone would have significantly changed the outcome. Most gun owners are not going to be sitting down to check out the legal statutes in their state if they feel they are under threat. The call to use force instead tends to come down to split second decisions between what is justified and what is not. This is one of the many reasons it is imperative that gun owners exercise great personal responsibility when carrying a weapon. Though clarifying the legal doctrine to be more in line with the original intentions of the legislature is never a bad idea, people not place false hope on the idea that this will solve issues with gun crime. There will still be accidents and misunderstandings. Yet, the alteration of “stand your ground” may one day save a life and that is an issue well worth time.