The shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman may or may not be explicitly or legally connected to Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, which allows citizens to use deadly force rather than retreat in the face of a potentially life-threatening encounter.
That depends on whether Mr. Zimmerman is prosecuted for the Feb. 26 shooting in Sanford, Fla. – he has yet to be charged – and how his attorneys might frame a defense.
But the case already has raised questions about Stand Your Ground laws now in force in some two dozen states and under consideration in others.
And on Thursday in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida lawmakers convened a task force to investigate the state's first-in-the-nation Stand Your Ground law. Task force members include prosecutors, law enforcement officials, public defenders, judges, law professors, and state tourism officials.
The effort is led by state Sen. Chris Smith, a Democrat representing Fort Lauderdale. Sen. Smith opposed the 2005 legislation, and he faults Gov. Rick Scott (R) for not acting sooner in reexamining a law that has seen a tripling of instances in which justifiable homicide is successfully used as a defense in shooting cases.
Governor Scott says he will convene a task force once special prosecutor Angela Corey of the State Attorney’s office completes her investigation of the shooting and the police response.
But for critics like Senator Smith, that just means more delay for a case in which an unarmed teenager was killed by a man who ignored the direction of a 911 emergency operator, and pursued Mr. Martin until some kind of confrontation (and perhaps a fight) occurred.
"I'm flabbergasted as to why there's the foot-dragging and hand-wringing. I don't know why they would want to wait," Smith told reporters this week. "To me, it seems a no-brainer that action is needed, and as leaders we need to take action right now."
Others are calling for a reappraisal of Stand Your Ground laws – particularly as they apply in cases involving armed neighborhood volunteers.
“I think the law is going to create real problems,” former President Bill Clinton told ABC News this week. “Because anyone who doesn’t have a criminal background, anyone not prohibited by the Brady Bill and caught by the checks, can basically be a part of a neighborhood watch where they have a concealed weapon whether they had proper law enforcement training or not, and whether they’ve had any experience in conflict situations with people or not.”
Clinton’s concerns about Stand Your Ground are the same voiced by law enforcement officials in Florida who opposed the law in the first place. (A main backer of the law was the powerful National Rifle Association, a principal reason why it was approved unanimously in the state Senate.)
In addition to gun-rights advocates like the NRA, such laws are modeled and promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative nonprofit policy organization whose major funders include billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
That ALEC is behind laws like Stand Your Ground and efforts to restrict voter registration (neither of which has much to do with the organization’s stated pro-business agenda) apparently is making some members uneasy.
On Monday, the Coca-Cola Co. withdrew its membership.
“Our involvement with ALEC was focused on efforts to oppose discriminatory food and beverage taxes, not on issues that have no direct bearing on our business,” the company said in a statement. “We have a long-standing policy of only taking positions on issues that impact our company and industry.”
Although what exactly took place between Martin and Mr. Zimmerman that rainy night remains hazy, the authors of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law say it shouldn’t apply in this case and therefore doesn’t need to be changed or repealed.
“When [Zimmerman] said ‘I’m following him,’ he lost his defense,” former Sen. Durell Peaden told the Miami Herald. “They need to prosecute whoever shot the kid. He has no protection under my law. There’s nothing in the Florida law that allows him to follow someone with a gun.”