Ever since George Zimmerman gunned down Trayvon Martin in his gated community in Sanford, it's become an article of faith that the rash of lethal shootings in public places — from Chad Oulson, killed after a texting and popcorn-throwing incident at a Wesley Chapel movie theater, to Jordan Davis, shot in his car at a Jacksonville gas station, to last week's lethal shooting in an Arizona Walmart — is attributable to the "stand your ground" laws enacted over the past decade in 26 states across the country.
Aggressive human interaction, post-Trayvon, now follows a painfully familiar pattern: An altercation occurs. Someone says he feared for his life. An unarmed victim (often young, black and male) is shot and killed. The headlines either explicitly or implicitly invoke "stand your ground."
Last week, Kriston Charles Belinte Chee, an unarmed man, got into a fight with Cyle Wayne Quadlin at a Walmart in suburban Arizona. Quadlin opened fire midargument and killed Chee. Officers decided not to charge Quadlin because, they concluded, the killing was in self-defense. According to the police spokesman, "Mr. Quadlin was losing the fight and indicated he 'was in fear for his life.' "
Given all this, it's not unreasonable to argue that, in America, you can be shot and killed, without consequences for the shooter, for playing loud music, wearing a hoodie or shopping at a Walmart. The question is whether the wave of "stand your ground" legislation is to blame.
Legal purists on both sides of the gun debate argue that neither Zimmerman nor Michael Dunn, who killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis, even invoked the "stand your ground" defense in their cases.
But Nicole Flatow at ThinkProgress contends that "stand your ground" had everything to do with both cases. As she writes, "Dunn's lawyer Cory Strolla cited Florida's 'stand your ground law' in his closing argument: 'His honor will further tell you that if Michael Dunn was in a public place where he had a legal right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.' "
Moreover, in both the Zimmerman and Dunn trials, the provision was included in the jury instructions. (Some say that this is immaterial because jurors are often read instructions that do not apply to the case before them. But do jurors know that?)
I might go further. I might say that whether or not specific jurisdictions define self-defense to include a duty to retreat, and whether or not specific juries are charged to apply it, America is quickly becoming one big "stand your ground" state, as a matter of culture if not the letter of the law.
The fact that "stand your ground" defenses have been staggeringly successful in Florida in recent years suggests that it's been embedded into more than just jury instructions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a Tampa Bay Times study from 2012 shows that "as 'stand your ground' claims have increased, so too has the number of Floridians with guns. Concealed weapons permits now stand at 1.1 million, three times as many as in 2005 when the law was passed." Put bluntly: As Floridians sense that other Floridians plan to shoot first, they buy more guns.
The gun lobby has single-handedly made certain that the very definition of what one might reasonably expect from an altercation at a Walmart, a movie theater or a gas station has changed. By seeking to arm everyone in America, the NRA has in fact changed our reasonable expectation of how fights will end, into a self-fulfilling prophecy about how fights will end.
Every time we hear about a Zimmerman, a Dunn or a Cyle Wayne Quadlin, we get a little bit closer to believing that we need to become a Zimmerman, a Dunn or a Cyle Wayne Quadlin merely to protect ourselves. And then it gets a little bit easier for us to relate to, and to believe, the next Zimmerman, Dunn, or Cyle Wayne Quadlin.
It's a perfect loop of logic. We define the reasonableness of a lethal response by the growing number of lethal responders. "Stand your ground" laws, or at least the public conception of what they do, are changing the way the rest of us think about self-protection. This is, of course, exactly the world the NRA dreams of constructing: Everyone armed and paranoid that everyone else is armed. But the old canard that an armed society is a polite society is pretty much bunk. Ours is not a polite society; we are rude and hotheaded and terrified. Now we have guns to help us sort it all out.
With each successful "stand your ground" claim, explicit or implicit, we are all in peril of becoming more frightened, more violent, and more apt to shoot first and justify it later. That leads to a terrifying prospect — that we are unconsciously morphing into a nation of George Zimmermans.
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