Editorial: “Stand your ground” laws encourage vigilantism

It is not yet clear why George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old on the way back from a local convenience store in Sanford, Florida on Feb. 26.   What is clear, however, is that many are not happy with the way in which local authorities have handled the case since then.

Zimmerman was never officially arrested by the police, nor has he ever been charged with having committed any criminal act.  The simple reason: he claimed that he killed Martin in self-defense, and investigators said that they had no evidence to prove otherwise.  They argued that, as such, they were bound by Florida’s now-controversial “stand your ground” law, which gives citizens the right to defend themselves with deadly force if they fear death or bodily harm at home or in public, to release him without further incident.  Needless to say, the Trayvon Martin shooting has brought a lot of negative attention to “stand your ground” and laws like it, which are currently in place in as many as 20 states in the US.

The principle concern for many is whether or not Zimmerman had a right to appeal to the legislation in the first place.  Since the shooting, police reports and 911 calls from Zimmerman and others have revealed that it may have been Zimmerman, who told a 911 operator that he found Martin “suspicious” prior to the shooting, that elected to pursue Martin, not the other way around.

There is no proof, as of yet, that Zimmerman had any reason to believe that Martin was an imminent threat to his safety before he began following him.  Many have argued that Zimmerman was, therefore, not acting in self-defense and that “stand your ground” does not apply to his case.  Some have even asserted that, if anyone had the right to invoke “stand your ground” in this instance, it was Martin, not Zimmerman.  However, one of the biggest problems with “stand your ground” is that it is fairly ambiguous as to what constitutes an act of self-defense.

After all, there are more than a few potential definitions of what it means to be in fear of serious bodily harm or death. What if, after Zimmerman caught up with him, Martin became violent? What if he thought he saw a gun on the teenager during the scuffle that followed?  Could Zimmerman not, in both of these cases, claim that he had reason to fear for his safety, even though he was technically the initiator of the conflict?

Shockingly, there is precedence for such a ruling.  Earlier this year, Greyston Garcia, a resident of Miami-Dade County, Florida, chased a burglar who had broken into his house for over a block before catching up to him and stabbing him to death. In March, a judge ruled that the thief, who swung a bag of stolen car radios at Garcia after he overtook him, posed a serious threat to Garcia’s safety at the time.  Under the “stand your ground” law, Garcia had a right to use deadly force to defend himself; all charges against him were, therefore, dropped.

That Garcia was not, at the time he began pursuing the burglar, in any immediate danger apparently had no effect on the ruling.  At some point during the incident he could prove that he feared for his life; and that was enough to support the conclusion that he acted in self-defense.  “Stand your ground,” then, can clearly be used to justify some very unintuitive conclusions about the nature of self-defense.

The ambiguity of the legislation is further complicated by the fact that “stand your ground” necessitates that the authorities make a ruling as to who the aggressor and defender are in a given altercation; and in a case like the Martin shooting that often means giving the killer the benefit of the doubt.  If he or she claims that he or she was acting in self-defense, then police have a responsibility to protect him or her from prosecution (pending the discovery of additional evidence that proves otherwise).  It is then left up to a judge, not a jury, to determine whether or not the use of force was justified—the case only goes to trial if said judge rules that force may not have been necessary under the circumstances.

“Stand your ground” laws, ergo, presume the innocence of the attacker as long as he or she can establish that there was a reasonable threat of serious bodily harm or death at the time of an attack.  They basically make it legal, under the right circumstances, for one citizen to kill another without fear of legal repercussion.  While it is true that there are some cases in which an individual should be allowed to defend him or herself from unwarranted aggression with deadly force, “stand your ground” is far too vague as to just what cases qualify.  The law has been used to justify some highly questionable rulings, and it may very well be used to do so again in the future.

The only instance in which any American citizen should be allowed to kill another is when doing so is the only means of avoiding a serious and imminent threat to one’s safety.  Regardless of whether or not George Zimmerman is found guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, the American people must take action against these deeply unsettling laws before they claim any more victims.

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