When a country lives in fear

Editorial: ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws set the bar low for use of deadly force at George Zimmerman trial

What happens when a country lives in fear

Joe Burbank/The New York Times

There’s no doubt that the Florida jurors who cleared George Zimmerman of all charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin came to the correct decision last week. But sometimes there is a vast difference between justice and what is just.

Under the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law it doesn’t matter that the 17-year-old victim was unarmed, or how—or even why—the fatal confrontation started. The only salient issue was whether his 29-year-old killer, the self-appointed captain of the neighbourhood watch, had a “reasonable belief” that he himself might be killed or suffer “great bodily harm.” In Florida, and the more than 30 other U.S. states that have bowed to pressure from the National Rifle Association and remade the definition of self-defence, it’s now basically shoot first and answer one simple question later: Were you scared?

Zimmerman never took the stand in his defence, and he didn’t need to. The standard Florida-sized jury of six women—five were white, and one Hispanic—clearly sympathized with his plight and shared similar insecurities. In an interview with CNN, one juror, her identity concealed, placed much of the blame on Martin, a young black man strolling back from the 7-11 in the dark and rain with his hoodie up along the streets and paths of a gated community. “Anybody would think anybody walking down the road, stopping and turning and looking, if that’s exactly what happened, was suspicious,” she said. And while Zimmerman went “above and beyond” what he should have done, ignoring the entreaties of a police dispatcher and leaving his truck to pursue Martin on foot, his “heart was in the right place,” she added. There had been a lot of thievery in his grandly named, if slightly rundown, Retreat at Twin Lakes subdivision. “I have no doubt George feared for his life.”

Much of the attention on this case has focused on race. And certainly it’s fair to wonder whether police would have been so quick to buy the self-defence argument had the young victim been white, or the shooter black. But the facts have never really fit that still-too-familiar narrative. Zimmerman, half-Hispanic and bilingual, had friends of all races growing up in Virginia, and in his more recent Florida years has mentored a number of black teens. And the Twin Lakes community is more diverse than its gated status might suggest. (Martin was there visiting his father’s girlfriend and her son, who are among several African-American residents.)

What the testimony and evidence introduced over the three-week trial really pointed to is a problem with fear. When Zimmerman set up the neighbourhood watch in the summer of 2012, upset over a rash of property crimes, local police counselled him and the other volunteers not to arm themselves. But the young man went out and got himself a licensed 9mm pistol all the same. Over the eight months before the shooting, he called the police dozens of times, reporting on not just suspicious characters, but speeding vehicles and stray dogs, too. He was on his way to the grocery store, early on a Sunday night, when he spotted the kid in the hoodie. Martin, who was on the phone with a girlfriend back in Miami, was apparently scared, too—telling her that he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracka.” And when the confrontation started, right outside the back doors of several townhomes just after 7 p.m., none of the neighbours who were watching or listening came outside to intervene, or respond to the cries for help.

Putting aside the break-ins at Retreat at Twin Lakes, crime has been falling for years in Florida—just like practically everywhere else in North America. Violent crime in particular, with 67,000 fewer offenses in 2012 than in 1992, despite the state’s population having grown by more than 5.5 million. But that’s not the public perception, either statewide or nationally. Opinion polls consistently show people believe the problem is getting worse with each passing year.

It’s that seemingly unshakable sense of dread that the NRA and its ally, the American Legislative Exchange Council, capitalized on when they picked Florida as the beta test for their bid to expand gun rights via Stand Your Ground. Latching on to the case of James Workman, a 77-year-old pensioner who had spent months in legal limbo after shooting an intruder in his trailer, they managed to engage public sympathy and push the statute through the legislature virtually unopposed.

But setting the bar for the use of deadly—or potentially deadly—force so low has had real consequences, and not just for Trayvon Martin. In Florida, in the five years before the enactment of the law in 2005, there were an average of 12 such “justifiable” killings by private citizens each year. In the five years after, the average leapt to 36. (The number of justifiable homicides by police officers in the state has also risen sharply, going from an average of 21 per year to 50 per year.) And “standing your ground” has become a popular and effective defence for everything from stabbings to assaults with baseball bats. A recent Tampa Bay Times analysis of more than 130 incidents where the statute was invoked found that a majority of the cases never went to trial. Sometimes it even works after the fact, like the 2010 confrontation in Town N’ Country, a Tampa suburb, where a late-night jogger pulled his gun on a teen who reportedly tried to rob him, and shot him four times in the back as he ran away. No charges were ever filed.

In the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal, organizations like the NAACP are pushing for federal civil rights charges against Martin’s killer. The Justice department is examining the case. And Eric Holder, President Obama’s attorney general, has said the “tragic, unnecessary death” should be embraced as an opportunity for the nation to speak honestly about “complicated and emotionally charged issues.” Most took that as code for race. But in the second term of their first black president, the state—and states—of fear that plague modern America are arguably a bigger problem. One that simplistic laws and lawmakers are only making worse.

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