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?

Gary W. Green/Reuters
George Zimmerman, with lawyer Mark O'Mara, testifies from the stand at the Seminole County Courthouse for a bond hearing on second degree murder charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in this April 20 photo.

Within 24 hours of Seminole County, Fla., Judge Kenneth Lester issuing a stern order allowing George Zimmerman, the defendant in the Trayvon Martin murder case, to post a $1 million bond, the volunteer neighborhood watchman received over $25,000 in donations, bringing his defense war chest to nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

Mark O’Mara, Mr. Zimmerman’s attorney, wrote that donors have been lining up for several reasons – that he’s been unfairly treated by the media, that he’s been falsely labeled a racist, and that donors, if they were in a similar position, would likely have done the same thing.

But in making an appeal for more funds, Mr. O’Mara also suggested on Friday that many Americans have given because they feel “this case is an affront to their constitutional rights,” namely the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.

IN PICTURES: Trayvon Martin

To be sure, many commentators say the case has mainly to do with Zimmerman violating Martin’s equal protection rights by profiling him and then illegally depriving the boy of his basic constitutional right of life.

But judging by the speed and size of donations to the defense fund, it’s clear the case continues to provoke a separate debate about America’s shifting stance on gun rights and the constitutional case for self-defense.

“People … are definitely thinking and talking about it,” Terrence Mayfield, 61, a Florida gun permit holder, told the New York Times a few weeks before the latest bond hearing. “This whole thing rests on who threw the first punch. Either the gun saved Zimmerman’s life or we had a cowboy, someone who thought because he had a gun things could escalate.”

Zimmerman, who is in late 20s, shot Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, after a scuffle on the night of February 26 in Sanford, Fla. Thousands of Americans rallied to the side of Trayvon’s parents, who demanded justice after local police decided they had no probable cause to disbelieve Zimmerman’s self-defense claim.

To Trayvon supporters, the fact that a half-white, half-Hispanic man went free after profiling Trayvon, an innocent black boy, as a criminal, chasing after him, and then shooting the unarmed boy reeked of racial inequality and even institutional racism. Others say Martin is the only one who had a legitimate self-defense claim as he lashed out against a combative stranger following him on a dark street.

But after the state, 44 days after the shooting, decided to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder, evidence began to emerge showing glaring injuries sustained by Zimmerman to his head and face. While even Judge Lester this week called Zimmerman manipulative, evidence shows he did pass a non-admissible “stress test” that suggested he was telling the truth when he said he feared for his life.

Zimmerman, who was heavier but shorter than Trayvon, has also stated he thought Trayvon was an adult, and that he wasn’t sure if he was armed or not. He said he reached for his 9 mm handgun after he believed Trayvon was going for it.

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.

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.”

IN PICTURES: Trayvon Martin

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