Note: It’s taken several weeks to write this post, so the case has progressed since I started writing.
There are several factors that contributed to the death of 17-year-old Florida high-school student Trayvon Martin. The most obvious are racism and a gun. A less obvious one is Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law.”
Let’s start with the obvious factors. If Zimmerman hadn’t acted on assumptions that Martin was “up to no good,” based solely on the teenager’s appearance, Martin would not be dead. Based on my reading about what happened and my hearing the words Zimmerman used on the 911 calls — especially in the context of gun violence against young Black men — the only interpretation that makes sense to me is that Zimmerman was acting on the idea that young, Black men are criminals. Whether or not he “is a racist” or is white is immaterial; anyone can act on racist thoughts and impulses.
It’s also simple logic that if Zimmerman had not had a gun, he couldn’t have shot Martin. You can’t shoot someone to death without a gun, period. Can you imagine a scenario where Zimmerman chased down someone he perceived as a threat or “suspicious” and wrestled him to the ground with his bare hands (or even a knife) and then killed him that way, up close and personal, and claimed it was self defense? That is not what happens in situations where innocent people are killed in cases of “self defense.” They are shot from a distance, where communication if often difficult, if not impossible.
So, given that racism pervades our culture in the US,* and given that many people have guns,* what can we do — in addition to fighting racism and fighting easy access to guns — to stop these tragedies? What can we do to help the survivors get heard and get justice — whether that means ability to sue for wrongful death or jail time for the killer?
You can march, if you’re able. You can sign petitions. You can spread the word about it. You can organize events. You can talk to your elected official. You can run for office, yourself.
I can do some of those things, and not others. Probably the same is true for you. What I can do has felt so small. It’s easy to become numbed by helpless rage or sorrow by such tragedies, especially because of their frequency. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. And especially if you cannot take action in more visible ways, it can feel like you don’t make much of a difference. Sometimes I wonder, “How can I, who rarely leaves bed and even more rarely leaves my home, make a difference?” Well, I have found one thing I can do, in addition to signing petitions and tweeting. You can do it, too, and I hope you will: Prevent a Stand Your Ground Law from being passed in your state. It’s much easier to prevent a new law from getting enacted than repealing an existing one. (Though if your state already has one, I hope you will try to get it repealed.)
As I will explain below, these laws are also interrelated with the issues of racism and gun proliferation.
One of the issues that has upset many people the most is the lack of police response to the murder. Obviously, racism and racial profiling are a central reason. Who can conceive of a 17-year-old white boy being shot to death and not having his killer, at the very least, detained and questioned and considered a suspect for a serious crime? If a Black man had shot a white teenager, would any police station in the country have let the shooter sleep at home that night? Anti-racism work, anti-gun legislation, anti-profiling legislation are crucial, and there is more we can do.
The big problem now, even though it seems likely there will at least be an attempt to prosecute this case, is Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. An NPR story quoted Jeffrey Bellin, a law professor at Southern Methodist University saying that it will be very difficult to prosecute Zimmerman because,”Florida law really pushes the envelope of making the right of self-defense as broad as possible. . . .” And referred to this as “Stand Your Ground Law.” He says Florida is one of 17** states that has this type of law. “As long as you’re somewhere you have a lawful right to be . . . you can meet force with force, including deadly force.”
I became aware of this issue because in Massachusetts, where I live, a Stand Your Ground bill is winding its way through our legislature. There are at least 30 other states that already have such laws. There are many more states with these bills in their state legislatures right now. Until recently, only a few states had these laws, but because of an aggressive campaign by the National Rifle Association, these laws are getting introduced, and often passed, everywhere. These laws will cause more innocent people to die, and their killers not to be held accountable, as has so far happened with Travyon Martin.
I’m not a lawyer or legal scholar, but I know a little about self-defense laws because I’m a former self-defense teacher. I taught my students two things:
1. How to prevent being assaulted — often involving de-escalation or verbal self-defense*** — and
2. How to use deadly force if they couldn’t get to safety without it.
I taught my students to fight until they knocked an assailant unconscious, just so they’d know how to do it if that was their only option. That level of self-defense is deadly force. Kicking somebody with a shod foot is actually considered using a weapon. I taught my students how to defend themselves against multiple types of physical and sexual assault, and to get their assailant on the ground and axe-kick them in the head. This not gentle stuff! That could kill someone and at the least would likely cause brain injury. So, I had to learn about self-defense laws in order to be able to tell my students what their legal rights and responsibilities were.
This paragraph from Wikipedia on US self-defense laws gives a basic idea of our laws:
While the definitions vary from state to state, the general rule makes an important distinction between the use of non-deadly and deadly force. A person may use non-deadly force to prevent imminent injury, however a person may not use deadly force unless that person is in reasonable fear of serious injury or death. Some states also include a duty to retreat (exceptions include Louisiana and Florida), when deadly force may only be used if the person is unable to safely retreat. A person is generally not obligated to retreat if in one’s own home in what has been called the castle exception (from the expression “A man’s home is his castle”).
I highlighted the parenthetical phrase, “exceptions include Louisiana and Florida,” because this is a reference to Stand Your Ground Laws in those states. However, many more states also now have these laws. I’ve had trouble finding the correct number because it has risen so sharply and so fast. Gun lobbyists have pushed legislation in all US states, modeled after Florida’s law, to create Stand Your Ground Laws.
Why will Stand Your Ground Laws result in more deaths of innocent people and not help protect people in dangerous situations?
First of all, more-than-adequate self-defense laws already exist. Massachusetts — and most other states — already have a “Castle Law” or uphold Castle doctrine (meaning that legal precedents set in court will amount to the same outcome as having the law.) A Castle Law says that if someone is illegally in your home or is committing a crime in your home, the resident may defend themselves or others against the assailant, including using deadly force, with no “duty to retreat.” In other words, if you’re in your home, and someone breaks in, you can legally kill them, even if you could have escaped harm by, for instance, locking yourself in the bathroom, calling 911, and yelling your head off. Here is Massachusetts’ Castle Law, for example:
Section 8A. In the prosecution of a person who is an occupant of a dwelling charged with killing or injuring one who was unlawfully in said dwelling, it shall be a defense that the occupant was in his dwelling at the time of the offense and that he acted in the reasonable belief that the person unlawfully in said dwelling was about to inflict great bodily injury or death upon said occupant or upon another person lawfully in said dwelling, and that said occupant used reasonable means to defend himself or such other person lawfully in said dwelling. There shall be no duty on said occupant to retreat from such person unlawfully in said dwelling. [Emphasis added]
Part 1: It shall be an act of lawful defense if a person, who is an occupant of a dwelling or in any place that they have a right to be, used deadly force, or less than deadly force, if he or she acted in the reasonable belief that an assailant was about to inflict great bodily injury or death upon themselves or upon another person who also had a right to be in the location. There shall be no duty on a person to retreat from any place that they have a right to be. An act of lawful defense as outlined in this section shall not be cause for arrest or prosecution. Further, an act of lawful defense under this section shall not be cause for the revocation of a license issued under 10 sections, 122, 123, 129B or 131 of Chapter 140. [Emphasis added.]
Part 2: No person who has committed an act of lawful defense as outlined in section 8A of chapter 278 shall be held liable in an action for damages for death or injuries to an assailant. [Emphasis added.]
The proposed law might appear similar to the existing law, but there are several crucial differences. I’ll start with part one. One of the most problematic sentences in this part of the bill is this: “There shall be no duty on a person to retreat from any place that they have a right to be.” The two most troublesome aspects are “no duty to retreat” and “any place they have a right to be.”
First, let’s talk about “any place they have a right to be.” Well, where is that? In Castle Doctrine, the right to use lethal force without a duty to retreat is restricted to your home. In Stand Your Ground Laws, you can use lethal force anywhere you have a right to be, which means pretty much anywhere! You have a right to be in the street, in a store, on a sidewalk, in a restaurant, in a hotel, at a school or a playground, etc. Unless you’re trespassing, you have a right to be anywhere. And, in a public place, the person you perceive as an assailant would also have a right to be there. Further, in a public place, innocent bystanders could be harmed or killed if they are shot while someone is “standing their ground” under this law, too.
Then there is “no duty retreat.” This means that even if you could easily or reasonably escape harm by not fighting — by moving yourself and/or another person at risk to a safe location — or by defending yourself using less-than-lethal force (which, in the great majority of assault cases, is enough to stop an assault), you can legally choose not to take less lethal measures and just kill the person instead.
To sum up, you can kill someone and not be prosecuted if you have a fear for your safety anywhere, even if
1. that person also has the right to be there, and
2. you would be able to escape harm by running, by going into a different building, by using non-lethal force, by calling the police, etc.
It seemed likely to me, when I read these bills and laws, that they encouraged vigilantism. This supposition is supported by troubling statistics. There has been a nationwide increase in “justifiable homicide” cases since more and more Stand Your Ground Laws have gone into effect.
What does vigilantism look like? It looks like George Zimmerman pursuing Trayvon Martin on the street — a place they both had “a right to be” — and shooting to death an unarmed boy because he perceived Martin to be a threat. If legal precedent holds, Zimmerman will not be punished for this crime.
Which precedents are these? One example is that of the 16-year-old Japanese exchange student, Yoshihiro Hattori. Hattori was with his host brother looking for a Halloween party. They got lost and rang the doorbell of the wrong house in Baton Rouge. The wife in that house panicked that a stranger was outside (a stranger wearing a tuxedo who had rung her doorbell) and told her husband to get his gun. He did, and even though the boys had already turned around and were heading back to their car, and they called out that they were looking for the Halloween party, from his doorway the gun owner yelled, “Freeze!” Hattori, who was not fluent in English and didn’t know what “freeze” meant, took a step forward and was shot to death.
Some may think that the nationwide outrage over Trayvon Martin’s death will lead to a murder conviction for Zimmerman. I’m not so sure. Yoshihiro Hattori’s case became an international incident that seriously affected tourism in the US, yet Hattori’s murderer received no jail time for killing the boy. Why? Because the defense successfully used Louisiana’s Stand Your Ground Law.
In my opinion, what is much worse than the lack of jail time for the killers is the lack of other forms of legal recourse for those injured or for the families of those killed. It is very unlikely that if Zimmerman successfully defends his actions using Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law that Martin’s family would be able to sue for wrongful death in civil court. Why? Because these laws also prevent that. The wording in the second part of Mass. bill 661 would prevent such lawsuits:
No person who has committed an act of lawful defense as outlined in section 8A of chapter 278 shall be held liable in an action for damages for death or injuries to an assailant.
But the worst part of all is that these laws appear to be causing a rise in shootings and murders by civilians. According to the Washington Post:
In the seven years since it was enacted, the Florida law and others like it have become an effective defense for an increasing number of people who have shot others, according to state records and media reports.
Justifiable homicides in Florida have tripled, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement data. Other states have seen similar increases, FBI statistics show.
In the five years before the law’s passage, Florida prosecutors declared “justifiable” an average of 12 killings by private citizens each year. . . . But in the five years after the law passed, that number spiked to an average of 36 justifiable killings per year.
So, why are these terrible laws spreading like wildfire? A big hint can be found in the last sentence of Massachusetts’ proposed law:
Further, an act of lawful defense under this section shall not be cause for the revocation of a license issued under 10 sections, 122, 123, 129B or 131 of Chapter 140.
What are the licenses that can’t be revoked? All the laws referred to in that sentence are laws governing the right to sell, rent, buy, or lease guns (“firearms, rifles, or shotguns”). In other words, if you kill someone under this law — even if you make a mistake and kill someone who was not actually harming you — you get to keep your gun, and the person who sold you that gun gets to keep their seller’s permit. It’s no surprise, then, that the NRA is behind the push for these laws in every state of the Union:
This sharp turn in American law . . . began in Florida in 2005 and has spread to more than 30 other states as a result of a campaign by the National Rifle Association and a corporate-backed group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes conservative bills.
Florida has been at the forefront of expanding gun rights for decades, ever since an NRA lobbyist named Marion Hammer, the NRA’s first female president, became a force in the state capitol in Tallahassee.
When she helped write the Stand Your Ground bill and circulated it, some police chiefs and other law enforcement officials warned that the measure would make it hard to convict people of murder. Defendants would simply claim self-defense and challenge prosecutors to prove they were lying.
And this is what has happened. Hattori and Martin are not the only people who have been shot, and their shooters not imprisoned, based on these types of laws. In Florida, Billy Kuch was also looking for a party and went to wrong house. He was on gun owner Gregory Stewart’s lawn, with a cigarette in one hand and a T-shirt in the other, asking for a light, when Stewart shot him in the chest. Kuch was not armed. He was not attacking. Kuch survived but suffered physical injury as well as PTSD and worsened bipolar disorder since the assault. Stewart was not prosecuted because of the Stand Your Ground Law.
What can you do to make a difference? To roll back the tide of this deadly legislation?
A first, and very easy, step is to sign this petition at The Petition site, “Tell All States to Reject Stand Your Ground Laws.
A second easy step is to sign this petition to repeal Florida’s SYG (or “Shoot First”) law.
Another very important step is to personally call your representative and senator in your state legislature and tell them why you oppose this bill. Petitions are useful, but personal contact is better. Talk about Trayvon Martin. Talk about your own thoughts and feelings. Let them know that you are paying attention.
Then, equally important, share the petition link and the link to this article with your friends, family, activist networks, and others. These bills are quietly becoming laws in one state after another without public awareness of the ramifications. We must shine a light on gun lobbyists’ activities that can lead to more murders.
What underlies these bills is fear — literally and figuratively.
I wrote near the beginning of this post that this legislation relates to guns and racism. I hope by now the gun connection is obvious. The connection with racism is fear. What underlies innocent people being shot or killed is fear of the “other.” Fears based on racism are by definition irrational. Yet, these laws require people with guns to make decisions about whether to shoot based on “reasonable fear.” This makes no sense.
Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law is actually the “Justifiable Use of Force” law. It is listed under “Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.” [Emphasis added.] The first section reads:
A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if…. [Emphasis added.]
The word “fear” is prominent in this law. That is not the case in all self-defense laws. For example, the Mass. Castle Law refers to “a reasonable belief that the person unlawfully in said dwelling was about to inflict great bodily injury or death upon said occupant or upon another person lawfully in said dwelling, and that said occupant used reasonable means to defend himself.”
This might seem like semantic game-playing, but every word of a law is important. In a trial where a defendant has killed someone and says it was self defense, it is much easier for the defense to successfully argue that they were afraid — after all, the emotions we experience are personal and subjective — than to argue that their belief of imminent great bodily injury was reasonable. One can argue whether a belief is reasonable. One cannot argue that another was feeling fear, whether or not their fear was rational.
Likewise, using “reasonable means” to defend oneself does not mean using any available means; it means doing what you reasonably can to protect your (or another’s) life or safety.
The origins of Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law are also based in fear. Again, according to the Washington Post:
In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and amid images of lawlessness in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, many Floridians, and Americans generally, felt less safe and believed the justice system could not protect victims, said a study of Stand Your Ground laws by the National District Attorneys Association.
In Florida, where looters appeared in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, [NRA lobbyist Marion] Hammer launched her drive for the new law based on the case of James Workman, a 77-year-old Pensacola man who fatally shot an intruder who entered the trailer Workman was living in after the storm damaged his house.
Prosecutors decided not to charge Workman, but many lawmakers pronounced themselves appalled that he had to endure months of uncertainty before being cleared.
The Katrina disaster and the responses to hurricanes after it were highly racialized. Discussion and perception of “looting” by the media and general public in the aftermath of hurricanes, especially Katrina, was highly racialized. White people who went into stores or homes to get things were scavenging “provisions,” whereas Black people doing the same thing were “looting.” The specter of fear was writ large. Even as people of color were depicted as scary and criminal, they were dying. I’d never seen the double-edged sword of racism on such a large scale in my life before: the utter lack of support, help, or safety for people who were at the same time portrayed as the threat.
That Florida’s law grows out of this history, and that the Florida law has been used as the basis for all the other laws the NRA is pushing is deeply disturbing.
There are certain groups of people who are more likely to be assaulted by others, to need self defense, and certain groups of people who are more likely to be misperceived as a threat. Often, these groups overlap. In other words, people who are at higher risk of being assaulted and needing to defend themselves are instead the ones who are perceived as threats and shot.
Some of the people who are most likely to be abused or assaulted (by civilians) are children, women, queer people, trans people, disabled people (which includes physical, intellectual, sensory, and psychiatric disabilities), people of color, and elderly people. However, you will be hard-pressed to find multiple stories of civilians in these groups who shoot someone to death in the mistaken belief that they are protecting themselves. Most often when someone in these categories is abused or assaulted, their perpetrators continue to abuse and assault them or others. So far, the people I have read about who are getting away with murder under Stand Your Ground Laws are not elderly, disabled, female, queer, trans, or children.
So, why are people who are not in high-risk groups — not likely to be assaulted — killing people they mistakenly believe are dangerous? There are some similarities in some of these cases. Both Yoshihiro Hattori and Trayvon Martin were young men of color. Both were at a distance from their killers. Neither were attacking or pursuing their killers. So far, both their killers have gotten away with murder.
In both cases, it seems very likely that the killers had an unreasonable fear of a young man of color near their homes because men of color are feared in our society. Regardless of who they are, what they are wearing, what they are doing, they risk being perceived as criminals, as threats. A Black Harvard professor gets arrested for going into his own home. A Black New York City councilor gets arrested by police. These types of incidents happen every day. Cases of unarmed dark-skinned men being shot by police and civilians are such a common occurrence that we have terms like “driving while Black (DWB)” or even “walking while Black” as shorthand. Black men have passed down a “code” to their sons to try to teach them to protect themselves from being perceived as a threat and harmed as a result.
It is not possible in this culture to never have racist thoughts, no matter what your skin tone or politics. I try to work against racism, yet I still have racist thoughts that just pop into my head before I have a chance to examine them. People of color have racist thoughts. We all do. Fear of dark-skinned men is part of our culture — whether it is conscious or not. Because this fear is present, it’s especially dangerous to have laws encouraging people to shoot people they fear!
Another group of people who are feared by the general public, but who are actually at a higher risk for assault are people with mental illness. Billy Kuch was one such person. Another was David Gatti of Massachusetts, who was shot dead by Ronald Duval in Duval’s home. This case is a bit different from previous ones I’ve mentioned above: Gatti was armed — with a broken glass — and was inside Duval’s home. Duval did shoot Gatti in the leg before shooting him fatally in the chest. Duval was not prosecuted because of Massachusetts’ Castle Law.
What David Gatti and Billy Kuch have in common is that they both had mental illness and were in altered states of mind when they were shot. Kuch had bipolar disorder and was drunk. Gatti had schizophrenia and depression, seemed to be delusional at the time of the incident, and was on psychiatric medication. While the general public is often afraid of people with mental illness, and perpetrators of violence are often called “crazy” even when they are not, in actuality, people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators.
The United States already has an astronomical murder rate. These laws will cause more murders, and very likely, those killed will be people already at high risk for violent death, people with mental health diagnoses and particularly young, Black men. Given that the leading cause of death for African-American males ages 15 to 34 is murder, we need to work harder to protect this group from victimization, not add to it.
Does your state have a Stand Your Ground Law already? Does it have a bill in your legislature? I’ve compiled a list.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
There are several things you can do to make a difference. Most are very easy and fast. The more you can do, the better. Any step you take will help!
- Sign the petition mentioned above.
- Share the petition link with everyone you know.
- Share this post — or similar ones — with everyone you know.
- If you live in a state that doesn’t yet have a Stand Your Ground Law (see list here), now is the time to personally contact your representative and senator for your state legislature and tell them you strongly oppose such a law. It is extremely likely that such a bill is already in your state legislature! If you don’t know who they are, just google your state’s name + legislature, e.g., “Minnesota legislature” or “Virginia legislature,” and then you can usually search by your zip code.
- If you live in a state that already has a SYG law (see list), you have options to make a change. Talk to your legislators, community activists, religious leaders, or others who are sympathetic to the cause. You can launch a statewide ballot initiative or work with a legislator to get a bill introduced that would amend your current law.
Whether you consider yourself part of the Occupy movement or not, most people want laws decided by the people, not by corporations or lobbyists like the NRA and ALEC. Rolling back these laws is an act of self defense by and for the people, especially some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
*Comments arguing against the fact of pervasive racism in US society will not be approved. Comments arguing against the fact that legal gun ownership leads to the death of scores of innocent people will not be approved.
**Because of the recent push for Stand Your Ground Laws in every state, the number of states with this law is now higher than 17, but I haven’t been able to figure out exactly which states have the law and which don’t. I believe 25 states current have this law, and several others have bills.
***Studies have shown that the most effective technique in preventing a rape is to fight back verbally. If that doesn’t work, fighting back physically is also usually effective.