Deluge of letters reveals fervid debate over Zimmerman verdict

You love guns. You don't love guns. You think George Zimmerman is a racist wanna-be cop. You think he is a Second-Amendment saint. You think Florida's "stand your ground" law is perfect and flawed. You think the American justice system worked and failed.

Zimmerman's trial, which ended with his acquittal on July 13, opened debate on a spectrum of hot-button issues in a way few public events have. Protesters marched in cities across the country. President Barack Obama weighed in. Leaders called for a national conversation on race, whatever that means.

More than 200 of you took the time to write letters to the editor here at the Tampa Bay Times. That's a remarkable number. Most were thoughtful. Some were hateful. Some were sad. One man from Ithaca, N.Y., was so discouraged about the verdict he's not coming back to Florida.

"For over ten years I spent half a year in Gulfport," he wrote. "I shall not return."

The vast majority of the letters revealed deeply held passions about our culture, our laws, and how we relate to one another, for better or worse.

Collectively, these letters represent our community. We can't run them all, but we wanted to pluck from them to let you know what your neighbors are thinking. Maybe it helps to keep talking.

'Stand your ground'

In 2005, Florida became the first state in the nation to create a law that gives a person who is not in the commission of a felony the right to defend himself with force, without the duty to retreat, anywhere he has a right to be, if he is in fear of death or great bodily harm. As the Times reported last year, the "stand your ground" law has been invoked some 200 times since then, but no case has turned as much attention to the law as Florida vs. Zimmerman. And even though the jury instructions specified that Zimmerman had "no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force," even though one of the jurors said publicly that "stand your ground" protected Zimmerman, questions remain about the exact role of the law in the verdict.

Critics of the law say it devalues the actions Zimmerman took before he used deadly force.

" 'Stand your ground' lit the match in a dried out forest," wrote George Chase of St. Pete Beach. "Here we are in one of the most gun happy states in the most gun happy nation literally recruiting vigilantes to take on what should be the responsibility of trained police officers."

"Since when does 'stand your ground' include following someone along a path (after being instructed by authorities to stay in your car) and accosting them with deadly intent while nowhere near your actual abode?" wrote Nan Sawyer of Sun City Center.

A panel organized by Gov. Rick Scott examined the law last year and ultimately decided to leave it unchanged, but one reader had a suggestion: "In order to invoke a 'stand your ground' defense, a person should be required to provide definitive evidence (e.g., eyewitness testimony, security video, etc.) that they did not cause or provoke the confrontation," wrote Doug Robison of St. Petersburg. "Had the law included this simple provision, it could have been argued by the prosecution that the profiling and stalking of Trayvon Martin by Zimmerman is what initially provoked the confrontation that resulted in Martin's death."

A recent poll, conducted by a Republican-led firm, found wide support for the law. Fifty percent of Floridians support keeping the law, while 31 percent want it changed and 13 percent want it repealed.

"I have one question for those who want to abolish the 'stand your ground' law," wrote Thomas Varnum of North Redington Beach. "Knowing full well that the bad people are not going to give up their guns, why in the world would you want to give them the advantage?"

John King of Tampa had a pointed question in light of the verdict: Can we duel?

"If two men who have concealed weapons permits get into a fight and both men go for their guns at the same time would this be a justified killing under Florida law?"

Guns

The overwhelming line of response in regards to Zimmerman's actions the night of the shooting: If he hadn't had a gun, the events would have played out differently.

"It's the gun that is guilty," wrote Bu Tritschler of Clearwater. "Without it, the cop wanna-be wouldn't have been out looking for trouble such as following a feisty young man who felt ready and able to defend his right to exist. But a gun has a way of turning an ordinary little man into an ordinary big man."

But Kim MacKellar of South Pasadena suggested demonstrators should redirect their energy away from changing gun laws.

"Would-be law breakers and trouble makers need to think twice before confronting any fellow citizen who may be armed," he wrote. "Protesters should focus their voices and energy on a positive campaign to 'Just Walk Away' and promote good behavior, respect for neighbors and our laws."

Blame

The trial gave many the opportunity to spread the blame.

The all-female jury? "The only injuries exhibited to Zimmerman were a bloodied nose and superficial abrasions on the back of his head," wrote Doug Robison of St. Petersburg. "I believe that most men would consider these to be relatively minor injuries indicative of a fist fight only, and as such would not justify the deadly use of force."

The media? "It would seem that race relations would be far better off if politicians and the (main-stream media) would keep out of events like these," wrote John Whelan of Dunedin.

The Rev. Al Sharpton? "It was about Al Sharpton and the black community taking advantage of a tragedy to gain racial and political leverage in efforts to gain more preferences," wrote Lawrence Klotz of Largo.

Richard Horowitz of Palm Harbor had an interesting opinion: Martin likely wouldn't have been in Sanford that night if he was in school in Miami.

"If Trayvon's high school administrators had engaged in true discipline rather than an expedient punishment — out of school suspension — he would be alive today," he wrote.

The dichotomy of views exposed deep divides in how we see and think about others.

"Trayvon Martin's parents have displayed the utmost dignity, grace and class throughout their very personal tragedy," wrote Louis Fronk of Tampa.

"In the Martin case, I blame the parents for not educating a teenager to be more respectful of the neighborhood and the families that live there," wrote Robert Weisman of Tampa.

It's hard to argue, though, with a thoughtful letter from Yvonne Neff Woods of Tarpon Springs. What if the two had communicated that night? she wrote.

"Ten words could have changed all our lives," she wrote. "Be kind to your neighbor."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

Deluge of letters reveals fervid debate over Zimmerman verdict 07/31/13 [Last modified: Monday, August 5, 2013 4:03pm]

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