The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. I think that is the one thing most of us can agree on. But the facts about what happened that night are murky, in part clouded by what appears to be an unprofessional investigation, a Florida law that goes beyond the doctrine of protecting your home when it and your family are threatened, and poor judgement on the part of the chief of police in Stanford and the State’s Attorney. So how did it come to this?
Still, in not arresting Zimmerman, local officials have pointed to Florida’s wide definition of self-defense. In 2005, Florida became the first state to explicitly expand a person’s right to use deadly force for self-defense. Deadly force is justified if a person is gravely threatened, in the home or “any other place where he or she has a right to be.”
In Florida, once self-defense is invoked, the burden is on the prosecution to disprove the claim.
Most states have long allowed the use of reasonable force, sometimes including deadly force, to protect oneself inside one’s home — the so-called Castle Doctrine. Outside the home, people generally still have a “duty to retreat” from an attacker, if possible, to avoid confrontation. In other words, if you can get away and you shoot anyway, you can be prosecuted. In Florida, there is no duty to retreat. You can “stand your ground” outside your home, too.
Florida is not alone. Twenty-three other states now allow people to stand their ground. Most of these laws were passed after Florida’s. (A few states never had a duty to retreat to begin with.)
Many of the laws were originally advocated as a way to address domestic abuse cases — how could a battered wife retreat if she was attacked in her own home? Such legislation also has been recently pushed by the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups.
So stand your ground was a way to address domestic violence. Interesting. unfortunately it has gone beyond that now. According to CBS Miami,
As some state lawmakers are calling for a re-thinking of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to defend themselves from danger without the need to first try to get away, an analysis of state data shows deaths due to self defense are up over 200 percent since the law took effect.
The shooting death of Trayvon Martin by an armed, self-appointed Central Florida crime watch volunteer who claimed he shot in self defense has sparked a national debate about Florida’s law, technically known as the Castle doctrine.
According to state crime stats, Florida averaged 12 “justifiable homicide” deaths a year from 2000-2004. After “Stand your Ground” was passed in 2005, the number of “justifiable” deaths has almost tripled to an average of 35 a year, an increase of 283% from 2005-2010.
I wonder who those victims of “justifiable” homicide were and why no one is investigating those deaths. And what are the statistics from the other states? Have they had a similar increase? Massachusetts is considering a “Stand Your Ground” law. The legislature should look into these questions before they do anything. The Washington Post has some of the answers in their editorial published today.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida experienced an average of 34 “justifiable homicides” before 2005; two years after the Stand Your Ground law was enacted, the number jumped to more than 100. Similarly disturbing spikes have been found in other states with similar laws. According to an analysis of FBI data done by the office of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), who co-chairs the 650-strong Mayors Against Illegal Guns, states that passed Stand Your Ground laws experienced a 53.5 percent increase in “justifiable homicides” in the three years following enactment; states without such laws saw a 4.2 percent increase.
The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys opposed Stand Your Ground laws, arguing that they were unnecessary and likely a danger to public safety. In a 2007 report, they foreshadowed the Trayvon Martin tragedy. “Although the spirit of the law may be to allow the public to feel safer, the expansions may instead create a sense of fear from others, particularly strangers,” the report said, concluding that enactment would have a “disproportionately negative effect on minorities, persons from lower socio-economic status, and young adults/juveniles” who are often unjustly stereotyped as suspects.
While this law might have had as one of its original purposes protecting women who are victims of domestic violence, there are other ways to do this. While we don’t know, and may never know, what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman that night about a month ago, we can look at these laws and understand that they really protect no one. Florida Governor Scott and I don’t agree on much, but we do agree that the law should be reviewed. Perhaps some good can come from all of this.