In the aftermath of the Feb. 26 shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, many people and publications, including Silver Chips Online, have analyzed and lamented the apparent racial prejudice that led to such a tragedy. (See our own News Blog from earlier this year.)
On Sunday, however, Bill Cosby argued in an interview with CNN that time should be spent analyzing gun laws rather than having discussions about present-day racism, which he views as less constructive. "What is solved by saying, 'He's a racist, that's why he shot the boy'?" Cosby said.
Cosby has a valid point. While we can't ignore Zimmerman's probable motivation of prejudice against black teenagers in hoodies, our government system should be examining its laws on guns and self-defense – simply because the government can't prevent unreasonable fear, but it can change unreasonable laws.
Right now, I am specifically referring to the state of Florida. While Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder (45 days after the shooting), his defense is likely to cite Florida's Stand Your Ground statute as a reason for his immunity. The case's special prosecutor, Angela Corey, said that Florida prosecutors often face this law. Corey was quoted on NPR saying, "If that law becomes an affirmative defense, just like alibi, insanity, entrapment or any of the other many affirmative defenses, we'll handle it accordingly."
Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which is officially 2011 Florida Statutes, Title XLVI ("Crimes"), Chapter 776, ("Justifiable Use of Force") , identifies when a resident is legally allowed to use deadly force and grants a person who does so immunity from legal prosecution. Section 776.012 states, "A person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony." (There are many other justifications for use of force, outlined in section 776.013 , which generally describes protection against home and vehicle invasion.)
The most dangerous provision in the statute is that the person "does not have a duty to retreat" before resorting to using deadly force. Think about what this means: whenever a person feels reasonably threatened, he or she has the right to shoot before they even try to find safety. There is no obligation to attempt to retreat to safety before people are legally allowed to use deadly force. But this statue is not just unique to the Sunshine State – Illinois, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington and West Virginia all have comparable self-defense laws.
Additionally, New Jersey politicians have been considering moving towards this standard, but not to the extent of the Florida law, according to a Sunday article in the New Jersey Herald . New Jersey lawmakers are considering removing the retreat requirement, but only in cases in which a person's home or vehicle is invaded and not when a person feels threatened outside of his or her "dwelling." State Assembly member Gary Chiusano, R-24th Dist., who sponsored a bill to make this change, told the Herald , "Our bill differs from Florida's law because our bill would recognize the right to self-defense in one's dwelling or car. Obviously, Florida's law goes much further." This would be described as adopting principles of the Castle Doctrine, a legal philosophy in many states that only removes the duty to retreat while inside one's home.
This approach makes more sense than Florida's, as one's home is often the place to which a person under threat would retreat. However, removing the responsibility to at least attempt to retreat from harm before taking drastic action in any situation is just begging for a violent overreaction. And Zimmerman's overreaction was by no means the first.
Since Florida first passed its Stand Your Ground statue in 2005, allowing people who felt threatened to shoot first, "justifiable homicides" in the state nearly tripled, according to CBS Miami . An average of 12 of these deaths per year before 2005 jumped to 35 since.
So, while there may be little that the Florida state government can do to assuage the prejudice-driven, or simply irrational, fears held by armed neighborhood watchmen, there is certainly something they can do to reduce the deaths they cause – Florida and its fellow Stand-Your-Ground states need to seriously review their self-defense laws. Or maybe they should just ban all sales of hoodies and Skittles, or other remotely scary apparel. Either way works.
Langston Taylor. More »