A right to kill

Who’s behind states’ Stand Your Ground laws?

Like many Americans, I can’t stop thinking about the death of Trayvon Martin. Of course, I don’t know what actually happened in those terrible moments when George Zimmerman shot and killed him, but I have no doubt that something horribly wrong took place.

Here’s what I do know: Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old who weighed 140 pounds, was walking back to his father’s fiancée’s home in Sanford, Fla., carrying a bottle of iced tea and a box of Skittles. George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old white man who outweighed Martin by more than a hundred pounds, followed him in an SUV, ignoring a police dispatcher’s suggestion that he not do so. He carried a 9mm pistol. According to Martin’s girlfriend, who was talking with him on the phone at the time, he was aware he was being followed and was frightened.

And yet Zimmerman—the aggressor in this situation—is claiming self-defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. And it was on the basis of that law, apparently, that Sanford police failed to test him for drugs or alcohol (they did test Martin’s body) or arrest him, even though on the night of the shooting the department’s lead homicide investigator in the case recommended that Zimmerman be charged with manslaughter. (He was overruled by a state attorney, who said there was not enough evidence in light of the state’s Stand Your Ground law, according to ABC News.)

The law extends the notion that people have a right to use deadly force to defend their homes to encounters outside the home. Historically, self-defense laws have stipulated that a person has a responsibility first to walk away from a threatening situation, to “stand down.” Florida’s law does away with that requirement. If you’re assaulted, you have the right to kill the person assaulting you.

Since the law was passed, over the objections of prosecutors and police associations, the number of “justifiable homicides” in Florida has tripled. Last week, according to an article by William Finnegan in The New Yorker, the state attorney in Tallahassee, Willie Meggs, told the Tampa Bay Times, “The consequences of this law have been devastating around the state. It’s almost insane what we have to deal with.” Gang members, drug dealers and road-rage killers are all successfully invoking Stand Your Ground, he said.

“The person who is alive always says, ‘I was in fear that he was going to hurt me,’” Meggs went on. “And the other person would say, ‘I wasn’t going to hurt anyone.’ But he is dead. That is the problem they are wrestling with in Sanford.”

More than 20 states have passed similar Stand Your Ground laws. You would think they were written by gun-loving yahoos, but not so. The group behind them is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative, corporate-backed (the Kochs, Exxon Mobil and AT&T, among others) advocacy outfit that actually writes the laws it wants enacted. If nothing else, Trayvon Martin’s death should awaken us to the pernicious influence this powerful organization wields.