The Role Of Gun Laws In The Trayvon Martin Shooting

The case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African-American teenager who was tragically gunned down near his home in the Florida suburbs late last month, has begun to receive national media attention. The potential impact of Florida's gun laws has become a front-and-center issue at some outlets as the events in question receive scrutiny.

On the evening of February 26, Martin was returning from the local 7-Eleven to the apartment of his father's fiancé with a pack of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea when he was spotted by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic man legally carrying a concealed handgun who acted as a neighborhood watch volunteer in that gated community. According to recordings released late Friday, Zimmerman called 911 from his car to report Martin as a “real suspicious guy” and “a black male” with “his hand in his waistband,” then left the car to pursue the youth against the dispatcher's recommendation.

A struggle then occurred which ended with Zimmerman shooting and killing Martin. Zimmerman has not been arrested by police after stating that he had acted in self-defense. This has resulted in a public outcry and demands for the Department of Justice to intervene.

Media outlets have noted that Florida's “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law may have effectively immunized Zimmerman from prosecution. As Mother Jones points out, Florida courts have found that under that statute, “defendant's only burden is to offer facts from which his resort to force could have been reasonable” while “the State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.” This has led to a legal situation wherein it is possible for someone to kill a member of a rival gang in a shootout, claim they were acting in self-defense, and avoid prosecution.

On Friday, The New York Times noted the role that Florida's “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law may play in the case:

Florida's self-defense law, known as Stand Your Ground, grants immunity to people who act to protect themselves if they have a reasonable fear they will be killed or seriously injured.

“Stand Your Ground is a law that has really created a Wild West type environment in Florida,” said Brian Tannebaum, a criminal defense lawyer in Florida. “It allows people to kill people outside of their homes, if they are in reasonable fear for their lives. It's a very low standard.”

Likewise, the Christian Science Monitor reported:

The shooting also presents a tragic snapshot of so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws, what critics call “license-to-murder.”

Such laws eliminate the English Law concept of a “duty to retreat” from dangerous situations outside the home. Without that, an armed citizen has no obligation to stand down in the face of a threat.

The problem, as the Martin case highlights, is that making the duty to retreat “totally irrelevant,” as Stetson University law professor Robert Batey has said, means the law gives prosecutors fewer factors to consider when determining self-defense, including, potentially, the extent to which a person claiming self-defense may have aggravated the situation.

The Today Show's Matt Lauer also raised the issue of that statute during an interview with a lawyer for Martin's family.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that 16 states have adopted laws similar to Florida's since its landmark bill was passed in 2005. Those laws are regularly backed by the National Rifle Association.