The tragic fatal Feb. 26 shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old black youth, Trayvon Martin, by an armed and overzealous neighborhood watch volunteer in an Orlando suburb should never have happened. That it did reflects two distinct tragedies.
One involves a wrongful death; so far as is known, Martin was merely walking to the home of his father’s girlfriend to see his father when he was shot.
The second tragedy involves the creation of a law — Florida’s 2005 “Stand Your Ground” law — that so far has safeguarded the shooter from any legal charges. He has claimed the shooting was in legal self-defense, even though he seems to have stalked and confronted Martin in a public location well away from his own home.
The watch volunteer, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, had already alerted police through one of several 911 calls that he was trailing a black youth in a sweatshirt in his gated Sanford community. He was told by a 911 dispatcher not to follow the youth.
“Are you following him?” the dispatcher said. “O.K., you don’t need to do that.” But Zimmerman waved off the warning. A few minutes later, Zimmerman told arriving police officers that he shot and killed the youth in self-defense.
As it turned out, the teenage victim — current pictures portray a sweet-faced boy — carried a can of iced tea in one hand and Skittles in the other when Zimmerman approached. Zimmerman has said he didn’t know what the boy had in his hand that rainy evening.
If there was an encounter then — Zimmerman claims Martin came over to him, that they had a fight and that Zimmerman ended up on the ground — it obviously would not have happened if Zimmerman hadn’t left his SUV, and ignored the 911 dispatcher’s advice, and trailed the boy.
If Martin had shot and killed Zimmerman in similar circumstances, he almost surely would have been arrested and charged with murder. Yet Zimmerman, invoking Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law, has not been charged with anything. That’s because the law goes well beyond a person’s right to own a gun and defend themselves in their home. It allows a citizen not just to obtain a gun-carry permit, but to shoot to kill in self-defense anywhere. It further does not require someone who is threatened, or feels threatened, to attempt to retreat.
The latter is the core flaw of the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law, which several other states have adopted, as well. Before the National Rifle Association and its vocal minority of supporters began showering states with demands to loosen sensible gun control laws, the common legal grounds for self-defense would have not have allowed someone to follow another person, create a confrontation, and then allow them to shoot and kill an unarmed person who otherwise would not have been engaged in a confrontation.
In those circumstances a murder or homicide charge of some degree would have been filed, no matter what the Sanford, Fla., police have maintained up to now.
Controversy in the wake of this travesty has finally resulted in a promise by a Florida state attorney’s office to present evidence to a grand jury, and a decision by the United States Department of Justice to mount an investigation by its Civil Rights Division and the FBI.
The backlash should not end there. A civil society must demand the repeal of laws that would protect trigger-happy citizens who believe they have the right to judge, shoot and kill innocent or unarmed people in confrontations that they themselves create. America cannot become a nation of mindless gunslingers. But left unchallenged, this is precisely the result that the NRA vision for unabridged gun rights will spawn.