George Zimmerman, the Constitution, and the shifting politics of self-defense
George Zimmerman’s lawyer says at the heart of the Trayvon Martin murder case lies a constitutional prerogative: The right of Americans to carry guns and use them in self-defense. Is he right?
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In late May, a Rasmussen poll found that 40 percent of Americans believed Zimmerman acted in self-defense while 24 percent believe it was murder.Skip to next paragraph
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While self-defense isn’t expressly written into the Constitution, legal scholars have long argued that the constitutional precept of “liberty” implicitly means “the right of self-defense against unlawful violence,” according to Thomas Cooley, a 19th century constitutional scholar.
But 40 US states, meanwhile, include in their constitutions both the right to bear arms and to use them in self-defense – concepts that states like Florida and 23 others have built on in recent years with so-called “castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” laws that expressly state that lawful citizens have “no duty to retreat” in the face of an attack, even in public.
Zimmerman’s main defense will likely be to seek immunity under the state’s stand your ground law.
Critics point to a recent study suggesting that such laws have significantly increased the rate of gun-related killings in states that have adopted them, as the number of what the FBI calls “justified killings” has risen in concord. That study, by Texas A&M researchers, moreover suggests that the laws have not had a significant deterrent effect on criminals.
Yet as concerns about Constitutional gun rights swirl around Zimmerman’s defense, the case itself may have sparked more than debate, and may have inspired more Americans to actually use guns to protect themselves and their property, suggests University of Georgia emeritus law professor Ron Carlson.
Speaking about a string of cases in Athens, Ga., where lawful citizens used guns to thwart burglaries and attacks, Mr. Carlson suggested to the Athens Banner-Herald newspaper that “awareness of [Georgia’s Stand Your Ground] law spiked after the Trayvon Martin case.”
“The existence of this sort of statute places an atmosphere or climate over various forms of human combat,” he said. “It helps to create a mindset that is conducive to resistance when one is placed in a conflict situation.”
Such readings of America’s fundamental laws, especially as spurred on by the Trayvon Martin case, trouble some commentators, including Walter Rodgers, a former Monitor columnist, who wrote recently that “Mexico, Colombia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza and the West are awash in guns. Their societies are not ones that Americans should emulate.”