Trayvon Martin’s Death and the Stand Your Ground Law vs. the Duty to Reatreat

There are few things more sad than an avoidable death. And I guess few things more unavoidable than using that death to push for a political position, as we see in the death of Trayvon Martin. Young Mr. Martin was a 17 year old walking home from the store when he was confronted by neighborhood watch “captain” George Zimmerman, who apparently (hopefully) thought he was protecting the neighborhood. But when the situation ended the teenage Martin hadn’t just been confronted or even picked up by the police, he was dead. But did Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law have anything to do with it? And if so, for whom?

It was a death that didn’t have to happen, for sure, and should have all of us questioning ourselves and what we would do in a similar situation whichever side we are on. But the political focus of those using young Mr. Martin’s tragic death has been on a Florida law, commonly called the “Stand Your Ground” law, that removes the duty to retreat for someone under assault and allows them to use force to defend themselves if they feel threatened. But the ironic thing is the person who chose not to retreat was not the shooter, Mr. Zimmerman … it was the young Mr. Martin.

I don’t know what the real facts are, and to what extent Mr. Zimmerman was threatening when he got out of his truck in the vicinity of Mr. Martin. But Mr. Martin definitely did feel threatened, per his phone call to his girlfriend, and it would appear that he felt sufficiently threatened that he took defense of his life in his own hands and attacked Mr. Zimmerman. In other words … Zimmerman was confronting someone in his neighborhood, and so whether he was doing it legally (just talking/asking questions) or illegally and threatening (brandishing his weapon/trying to restrain Mr. Martin) stand your ground has nothing to do with it. In the former he had no need to stand his ground or retreat as there was no violence underway, and in the latter he wasn’t standing his ground against an attack, he was initiating a violent conflict; which is never legal.

But in any case … no matter how you look at it … Mr. Martin did NOT choose to retreat. Had this fight gone differently and Mr. Martin prevailed, as the shooter claims he was about to, it would only be the “Stand Your Ground” law the would keep young Mr. Martin out of jail. Because “Stand Your Ground” isn’t a gun law; it’s a self defense law. And it mirrors how most American’s think about self defense.

If someone is following me, harassing me, trying to intimidate me … I don’t want to be limited to curling up in a fetal position or running away like the High School nerd. I’d like to be able to take reasonable action to defend myself, and not go to jail for it (at least until the police have investigated enough to figure if I’d done something out of line). And that’s all Stand Your Ground allows.

I’m reminded of a late night walk I took a couple of years ago in my neighborhood. To set the scene, it was around midnight (I often work late, and enjoy a late night walk — and why not?) and I was about four blocks from my house. The subdivision I live in was designed in the 1970′s when designers thought a cluster of roads that resembled a plate of spaghetti made sense, so there are a number of very short elliptical blocks and roads that end and then start up again.

Anyway … while walking around one of these short blocks I noticed a car pass by and slow down, then continue. No problem. A few minutes later it again passed and slowed down before continuing on. As I continued around the block to my house — in a nice neighborhood but at a time that I might as well have been standing in an abandoned field because all the house lights were off and nobody was outside — the car repeated this about 3 times. Clearly checking me out.

I was slightly nervous, but my assumption was it was a Zimmerman type who was just looking out for the neighborhood and checking on the big guy out walking so late at night. The situation ended anticlimactically and after about 5 passes the car moved on and I went home.

So if the story of how we are hearing the assault ENDED is close to being true, and Mr. Zimmerman fired the shot while on the ground being beaten, Stand Your Ground doesn’t come in to it. But Mr. Martin’s very understandable, very American reaction to someone following him a threatening manner — going on offense and trying to protect himself — is exactly the situation the Stand Your Ground law was written for. And it’s why this one tragic occurrence doesn’t invalidate it as a good law.

I respect people who are willing to look after their neighborhoods. If I were walking through a predominately black neighborhood and someone began questioning me aggressively, I would either acknowledge that they’re just trying to look out for their neighborhood or ignore them completely and let them call the cops if they want. If I felt they were going to assault me (and it is just feelings — there’s no law against asking someone why they are where they are, though it sometimes feels threatening) and my best bet was to fight, I’d do that. With whatever I had available.

Mr. Zimmerman will have his day(s) in court. And I hope justice is done and enough facts are found out to actually do justice. In the meantime, the Stand Your Ground law is still a common sense self defense law, and we need it in more states, not less. And while we don’t need someone in any neighborhood that will walk up to a stranger brandishing a firearm or being threatening, I’d love to have more people in my neighborhood willing to ask strangers walking through what their up to. Just a pleasant … “Hi. You looking for somebody? Something I can help you with?” is all that’s required. And that shouldn’t be enough to warrant a violent response from anyone. But if a person does respond violently to that, they are now the assailant and the person who first asked them a question has every right to defend themselves. However they have to.

My prayers go out to the Martin Family. And the Zimmerman family. For discussion of the legal matter of the Stand Your Ground law, you can look here here here.

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