Why Zimmerman verdict might not roll back 'stand your ground' laws

The US attorney general, Juror B37, and even Stevie Wonder express reservations about self-defense laws like Florida's 'stand your ground' statute, a factor in the George Zimmerman trial. What's the likelihood such laws will be reconsidered?

Joe Burbank/AP
George Zimmerman leaves court with his family after Zimmerman's not guilty verdict was read in Seminole Circuit Court in Sanford, Fla. on Saturday, July 13.

One legacy of the George Zimmerman not-guilty verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin may be to buttress the use of firearms in self-defense – a reinforcement that has US officials and others worried that expansive new self-defense laws in the states could become vehicles for people to express their personal prejudices with gun violence.

Attorney General Eric Holder raised the concern Tuesday during a speech to the NAACP, describing as "senseless" the self-defense doctrines that expand beyond defense of one's own home to self-protection in public places. Such laws allow “violent situations to escalate,” he charged.

Even Juror B37, whose descriptions of the jury's race-blind deliberations in the Zimmerman trial provoked a backlash among those who believe racial profiling was the heart of the matter, ultimately cited Florida's expansive self-defense law as the reason for the acquittal. Her prayers, she said, are with those “who have the influence and power to modify the laws that left me with no verdict option other than ‘not guilty’….” 

Indeed, the Florida judge in the case instructed the jury that under state law Zimmerman had "no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force" if he reasonably feared for his life or great bodily harm.

As attention zeroes in on so-called "stand your ground" laws (musician Stevie Wonder said Tuesday he won't perform in Florida until the law there is repealed), the obvious next question is, what's the likelihood of changing them? Poor to nonexistent, say some who track the gun culture in America.

“Non-gun owners are questioning Stand Your Ground laws … [b]ut the gun lobby is too strong to allow such laws to be repealed,” writes Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” in an e-mail. “For better or worse, stand your ground laws are here to stay.”

First passed in Florida in 2005 and now law in more than half the states, "stand your ground" statutes are designed to clip the wings of prosecutors who seek to bring charges against gun owners who shoot someone and claim self-defense. Usually, these defendants are allowed to ask a judge for immunity from prosecution, and the judge then weighs whether the "preponderance of evidence" – a relatively low threshold of proof – indicates that the shooter did or didn't act in self-defense under the law. The bottom line is that it’s harder for prosecutors to place responsibility on someone who claims self-defense.

On Feb. 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, had shopped at a convenience store and was returning to a house where his father was staying in a gated neighborhood in Sanford, Fla., when Zimmerman spotted him, followed him, and then fatally shot him after Trayvon punched him. Originally released by Sanford police, Zimmerman was arrested by a special prosecutor 44 days later. The subsequent trial, which began June 10, was widely watched, culminating late Saturday in a not-guilty verdict. 

The fact that an unarmed teenager walking back from the store is dead in large part because an adult with a gun thought he looked suspicious – and that no one is going to jail over it – has fueled not only street protests, but also fears of greater bias-fueled vigilantism. More than 100 rallies have been planned to demand “Justice for Trayvon.”

After the jury's judgment, supporters of Trayvon's family vowed to lobby legislators to change laws so as to make it harder to claim self-defense in public places. While the US Department of Justice helped Zimmerman prosecutors with their case and is conducting an investigation into whether Trayvon's civil rights were violated because he was black, Mr. Holder, in his comments at the NAACP gathering, suggested the laws are fundamentally flawed because they threaten to change how people relate to one another by giving a legal way out for people who escalate fights.

“These laws try to fix something that was never broken,” he said. “The list of resulting tragedies is long and, unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent. We must confront the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs, and unfortunate stereotypes that serve too often as the basis for police action and private judgments.”

Other legal analysts offer a different takeaway, saying the case may actually serve as a cautionary tale that helps to tamp down any inclinations to whip out guns at times of provocation.

“This was not a victory for gun rights,” argues Jeffrey Swartz, a former Miami-Dade judge who’s now a law professor at Cooley Law School in Tampa, Fla. “I think the opposite is true: After seeing what happened to George Zimmerman … and how his family has been completely uprooted by this, and how the Sanford community has been uprooted by all of this, if I’m an average citizen I’m going to keep the gun in the holster. I’m going to make the call [to 911], but I’m not getting out of my car.”

According to a Brookings Institution paper, 100 million Americans now live in homes with guns, meaning there are about 88 guns in circulation in the US for every 100 Americans – totaling about half of the world’s privately owned firearms.

Public acceptance of the concept that people who are being threatened have “no duty to retreat,” even in public places, might be a natural outgrowth from those numbers, suggests Mr. Swartz, the former judge.

“What it comes down to is that as more people have guns, now they’re saying, ‘I want to be able to use it. And right now it’s difficult to use it, so give me a better law so I can use it,’ ” he says.

A plurality of US adults – 48 percent – agree with the verdict, compared with 34 percent who disagree, according to pollster Scott Rasmussen.

Many gun owners and proponents of broad self-defense laws say Holder's recent comments show that the Obama administration has tried to use the Trayvon Martin case to advance its political goal of greater restrictions on gun access and use. They point to revelations that an office within the Justice Department lent "technical assistance" and security to protest organizers and city officials in Sanford during rallies where civil rights leaders pushed for Zimmerman’s arrest. Stand your ground laws have been enacted to prevent the unfair prosecution of people such as Zimmerman, they say. 

Self-defense laws like Florida's “represent our rejection of a state where the government has a monopoly on instruments of violence [and where only the government] gets to decide who is authorized to take life, and under what circumstance,” says Brannon Denning, a law professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and co-author of “Gun Control and Gun Rights: A Reader and Guide.” In that way, he adds, guns and self-defense ideals “are in our DNA – this is part of who we are, for better or worse.”

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