Trayvon Martin Case Proves 'Stand Your Ground' Laws Encourage Vigilante Violence

The shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012, has garnered quite a bit of attention since the release last week of 911 tapes related to the incident. However, this is not the first shooting of its kind. Unfortunately, the Stand Your Ground law passed in Florida in 2005 makes it possible for murders like this one to occur, and for the perpetrators of such crimes to avoid jail time.

According to the Florida law, people are allowed to use deadly force if they “reasonably believe” the force is “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.” This may sound like the familiar Castle Doctrine, which allows a person to shoot a home invader if they feel physically threatened. But the Stand Your Ground law goes one step further: the justification to shoot is not limited to the confines of one's home. Rather, it applies anywhere the shooter has a right to be. It also states that the shooter has no duty to retreat from the situation (which essentially legalizes a shoot-first mentality).

George Zimmerman, the 26-year-old Hispanic man responsible for the death of Martin, has thus far used this policy to successfully avoid prison. He has yet to be arrested, despite the obvious flaws in his declaration that he shot Martin in self-defense. Zimmerman actively pursued Martin, even after being discouraged by a 911 dispatcher. Deliberate pursuit clearly does not constitute concern for one’s personal safety, as Zimmerman seems to suggest with his self-defense claim.

Moreover, Florida isn’t the only state with such a law. Arizona has a similar statute in place, justifying the use of deadly force if a person “reasonably believes it is immediately necessary to stop one of many enumerated crimes,” according to Phoenix Criminal Law News. The Arizona policy has been similarly used to support vigilantes patrolling the border to curb the number of illegal immigrants entering the state.

In Arizona, a shooting in January resulting in the death of two innocent people was also unprovoked. But the case in Arizona was even worse: the vigilantes appeared at the door of the family’s home, calling themselves law enforcement officers looking for a fugitive. When the unsuspecting father let them in, Shawna Forde and her accomplice proceeded to shoot all three people living there, including 9-year-old Brisenia Flores,even after she pleaded for her life. Brisenia’s mother, Gina Gonzales, was able to survive the shooting by playing dead after she had been shot.

As did Zimmerman, the shooter deliberately approached the unarmed victims, who were doing nothing even remotely suspicious to provoke such a violent outburst. While the perpetrators in this case were arrested and brought to justice (Forde is now facing the death penalty), the Stand Your Ground law seems to be encouraging vigilante activity in this situation, as well.

These crimes lead us to a fairly obvious question: If these Stand Your Ground laws are more effective at encouraging vigilantes to commit violent crimes than at protecting people who are truly acting out of self-defense, why are they still on the books?

Photo Credit: Emily Stanchfield