Gov. Rick Scott has taken the appropriate steps to respond to the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford. The governor recognizes that the uproar over the African-American teen's death at the hands of neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman can only be adequately answered if justice is done. He appointed an outside state attorney to investigate the incident, and he has created a task force to review the controversial "stand your ground" law that Zimmerman is using to claim legal immunity. Both actions signal that Scott understands the gravity of what has taken place and his responsibility to provide leadership.
In the center of it all is the indefensible "stand your ground" law. Florida lawmakers passed this first-of-its-kind law in 2005 at the behest of the National Rifle Association and over the objections of law enforcement. A review of the use of the law by Tampa Bay Times staff writers Ben Montgomery and Connie Humburg found that it has excused mayhem and has been inconsistently applied. Since the law was created, there have been 130 "stand your ground" cases, with the use of the defense accelerating in the last year and a half. Seventy percent of these incidents resulted in someone's death, and in a majority of cases the person who raised the defense did not stand trial. The Times survey found "stand your ground" defenses used in gang shootings, bar fights and road rage incidents.
Irresponsibly and in Clint Eastwood fashion, the law strips away the duty of a person to retreat even if he may safely do so when faced with a threat. Instead it allows people to employ lethal force when they reasonably feel their life is at risk. It gives a "get out of jail free" card to people quick to feel threatened and who have a lethal weapon at their disposal.
Zimmerman, who was carrying a gun, pursued Trayvon because he was suspicious of a black youth in a hoodie walking in his gated community. But this aggressive act is not contemplated by the law. Because Zimmerman allegedly had a legal right to be where he was standing and he claimed that he was attacked — without Trayvon alive to dispute the account — he has not been charged with a crime.
The case has since gained tremendous national attention with African-American parents understandably wondering what they have to do to keep their sons safe. President Barack Obama expressed great sympathy with Trayvon's parents Friday saying, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." He said he was glad to see the U.S. Justice Department looking into the matter and that Scott was on the case.
Scott appointed Angela Corey, state attorney for the Jacksonville area, as special prosecutor. She will head the investigation rather than the local Brevard-Seminole state attorney. As for the task force, Scott enlisted Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll to be its chair. The governor's actions should be applauded, but the issues raised in Trayvon's case cannot be allowed to fade away as the headlines do. The "stand your ground" law is a menace. It protects hotheads and those prone to violence, and should be repealed.