The trouble with Florida's 'stand your ground' law

Published March 19, 2012

Once again Florida's "stand your ground" law is making headlines that demonstrate its dangerous consequences. George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, is claiming self-defense after shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26. Zimmerman is free under "stand your ground" as a police investigation drags on. Meanwhile a young man who was carrying nothing more than iced tea and Skittles is dead and his parents justifiably want answers. The racial elements of the shooting, Martin is black and Zimmerman is not, add another troubling layer to the lack of an arrest. But it is the "stand your ground" law that gives legal immunity to people who come to an argument with a hot temper and a ready gun.

The Florida Legislature passed the law in 2005 at the behest of the National Rifle Association but over the staunch objections of law enforcement. The law allows the use of deadly force when a person is in a place he has a right to be and feels reasonably threatened with serious harm. Opponents dubbed it the "shoot first" law because people have no duty to attempt to retreat from a threat of violence even if they could do so safely. History has borne them out.

Since the law went into effect, reports of justifiable homicides have tripled, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It has been used to absolve violence resulting from road rage, barroom arguments and even a gang gunfight. In 2008, two gangs in Tallahassee got into a shootout where a 15-year-old boy was killed. The charges were dismissed by a judge citing the "stand your ground" law.

In a high-profile Tampa Bay case, Trevor Dooley is using "stand your ground" as his legal defense, claiming that he was entitled to shoot and kill David James, his Valrico neighbor, during an argument over skateboarding on a basketball court. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ashley Moody will consider Dooley's motion to dismiss the charges against him on April 26.

Trayvon, a teenager from Miami Gardens with no criminal history, and his father were visiting his father's fiancee when he was killed. He was walking back from a convenience store when Zimmerman, armed with a 9mm gun, called police to report someone suspicious in the gated community. Police warned Zimmerman not to follow the teenager — advice he ignored. What ensued was a confrontation, a physical altercation, cries for help and a gunshot.

The "stand your ground" law prohibits arrests for those acting in self-defense. The Sanford police contend they have no evidence counter to Zimmerman's claim to support an arrest. But witnesses have challenged Zimmerman's version of events.

Trayvon's parents are calling on the FBI to take over the investigation. Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett said he supports federal involvement. This case is now gaining national prominence for its racial overtones and the seeming foot-dragging of the police, though the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and local state attorney are involved. The FBI also acknowledges being in touch with the Sanford police. But the real culprit is the "stand your ground" law that can tie the hands of police and prosecutors. Once again it has proven to be the menace that its critics predicted it would be.