If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all, you’re probably familiar with the basic facts of the Treyvon Martin case. A teenager named Treyvon Martin was walking alone on a sidewalk in a gated community, where he was staying with his father, who lived there. He was approached by George Zimmerman a member of the local neighborhood watch.
What happened after that is unclear, but it ended up with Martin being shot and killed by the watchman. It turned out that Martin was unarmed and had no criminal record. There are few eyewitnesses to the event, and the ones that exist give conflicting accounts of exactly what happened, so it’s not at all clear who the initial aggressor was in this incident.
Because of the respective races of the people involved (Martin was African-American and the watchman is white), and the somewhat suspicious circumstances of the shooting, this tragic event has reopened wounds that we all would have liked to believe healed long ago.
Pundits from virtually every political stripe have weighed in on what this tragic incident says about race relations in America, the need for more or less gun control, and, as I’m going to discuss in this post, the propriety of “stand your ground” laws.
Under almost every legal system in the world, people have a right to use lethal force to defend themselves against an aggressor who they reasonably believe poses an immediate threat of serious injury or death. However, the exact details of when and how this right can be used vary widely.
Even in the United States, where the laws of self-defense are considered quite a bit more permissive than much of the rest of the world, the details can vary significantly from state to state. There are, however, a few different categories that most of the states can be grouped into, when assessing how they deal with different issues that can come up in a self defense case.
Many states have a so-called “duty to retreat.” Basically, this means that if you’re confronted with a threat from another person, you are supposed to retreat from the threat, if it’s possible to do so safely. Only if retreat is impossible are you allowed to use lethal force. This means that the law (properly, in my view) only sanctions lethal force as a last resort to defend yourself. In most states that have this rule, there is an exception of the victim (the person exercising their right to self-defense) is attacked in their own home. This is based on the premise that a person should not be required to retreat from their own home.
Some states, however, have done away with the duty to retreat for some cases, and have instead adopted “stand your ground” laws, which permit a person to use lethal force to defend themselves without imposing a duty to retreat. The reasoning behind this rule is that everybody should be able to meet force with force.
In Florida, where this tragedy took place, this law had been enacted just a few years before this shooting. When the law was being debated, its opponents claimed that it would make it much easier for people to get away with racially-motivated killings. If there are no witnesses to the incident, or the only witnesses are sympathetic to the killer, it might be easier for the killer to convince the police that he was acting in self-defense, and that he simply chose to exercise his legal right to stand his ground. It was also suggested that it could cause arguments that might otherwise end in a minor scuffle to escalate to the point that one or both of the parties try to use deadly force.
I should be absolutely clear about one thing: we don’t know what happened the night Treyvon Martin was shot. I am not saying that the shooter murdered Trayvon Martin. I hope that this case is thoroughly investigated, and if there is significant evidence that the use of force was not warranted, Zimmerman should be tried. And if convicted, he should be punished.
But whether or not Florida’s “stand your ground” law applies in this case (and apparently Zimmerman’s lawyer is claiming that it doesn’t), are these laws a good idea? In general, I think we should always encourage potentially-violent confrontations to de-escalate, while preserving the right to use lethal force in self-defense as a last resort.
Even in jurisdictions that have a duty to retreat before exercising the right to self-defense, I would hope that courts give law-abiding citizens the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they honestly believed that they could not safely retreat from an attack before they used force, absent very strong evidence to the contrary.
Ultimately, I’m hopeful that the truth, whatever it is, will prevail in this case. And if it prompts discussions about race relations, gun control, and the scope of the right of self defense, I think that’s fine. Sometimes it takes the worst tragedies to prompt a society to do any real soul-searching.