For over a month, America has found itself in the throes of yet another racial tragedy in a history chock full of such problems since our nation’s inception. The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., should inspire a number of questions and feelings for Americans – where are we going, will our nation ever be able to overcome issues with race and why do these shameful attitudes still pervade our country?
These concerns, along with others, have been brought under the microscope – as is appropriate. Some other issues, however, have been raised without full understanding of their consequences. Florida Statutes Chapter 776, Justifiable Use of Force, commonly known as the Stand Your Ground law, has been criticized because it has been an excuse in defense of Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman.
But the reality is that the Stand Your Ground law does not even apply in this case. It would be wrong to strike down an inherently helpful law in a case whose details do not even merit using this law as a defense. Let’s examine the law, and figure out exactly why it doesn’t protect a man who should’ve been arrested and indicted on murder charges over a month ago.
The Stand Your Ground law on the books in Florida justifies non-deadly force without having to retreat only if the individual feels threatened with imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or others, or to stop someone from committing a forcible felony. Deadly force is generally justified when an individual’s life is threatened on his own property, or he is a victim of aggressive force in a manner that implies imminent death or great bodily harm.
Even according to Zimmerman’s own 911 call, it is clear that neither of these distinctions cover the case; the police even explicitly tell him that he is not to pursue Trayvon Martin. Ignoring the instructions of public safety officials may be the reason this tragedy happened in the first place. The Stand Your Ground law is not the issue; a vigilante is.
Stand Your Ground was put into place in Florida – as well as a handful of other states thus far, with a similar bill waiting to be introduced in the Massachusetts legislature – in order to protect individuals whose lives were threatened. Before the introduction of Stand Your Ground, the victim of a home invasion could only shoot their potential killer if they felt excessively threatened, had retreated as far away from the assailant as possible and clearly announced aloud their intention to shoot the assailant.
Obviously, people whose lives are in danger often lack the wherewithal to make sure they are following a three-tiered law; usually, they’re more concerned with staying alive, including if that means shooting and/or killing the person who may kill you. So, sensible laws like Stand Your Ground were passed in order to alleviate some of the people who were breaking the previous law by killing an attacker.
However, Stand Your Ground is not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. It doesn’t mean that in Florida people can run around shooting one another without repercussions – although it seems law enforcement has certainly bungled this case – but Stand Your Ground still isn’t the issue. In fact, this law provides important exceptions. For example, you can’t shoot someone in the back as they flee the crime scene. Even if they had put you in danger and attacked you; if they stop and run away, you aren’t allowed to shoot them. Fair enough.
Some have argued that it is because of Stand Your Ground that Zimmerman hasn’t been arrested yet. That simply isn’t the case. In fact, according to the Sanford Police Department’s report of the incident, a witness has stated that Zimmerman appeared to be bleeding from somewhere on his head, that he looked as though he had fallen on the ground and that he had wet spots from the grass on his back. So actually, it is because of a witness’s corroboration of Zimmerman’s story that the shooter hasn’t been arrested yet, not because of the Stand Your Ground law.
Even those in favor of the Stand Your Ground law have been explicitly clear in the weeks since Trayvon’s death – the law does not apply in this case because Zimmerman was not adequately threatened by the young man’s behavior. He should indeed be arrested and charged, but it isn’t Stand Your Ground that’s keeping Zimmerman a free man – it’s a purported lack of evidence by the police and an apparent lack of significant desire from the local district attorney’s office.
This country should continue to demand that Martin’s killer be brought to justice. In the face of this kind of tragedy, we are presented with a unique opportunity to have a conversation as a people. It should be a constructive, collective dialogue regarding race in America with all the problems that stem from the way our country has handled race for generations: stereotypes, profiling, and attitudes that foster hate.
What we should not do is take a good law off the books simply because some have misinterpreted it. It’s a law you’d probably want if someone broke into your home and threatened your life.
After extraordinary events, it is natural for people to have knee-jerk reactions regarding related issues – however it is not healthy. The American political system is that of a republic; in other words, we are a people governed by laws. We are not a people governed by mob rule; just because a large group feels one way about an issue doesn’t mean it should automatically become law. In fact, that is extremely unwise because of the constantly turning tide of public opinion.
When we pass laws like Stand Your Ground and follow them, we are benefiting from the intentions of the laws. When we ignore them, or misrepresent them or apply them incorrectly, we are just being ignorant. Before criticizing, we ought to know our subject.
Jon Carvalho is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.