As the nation awaits the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, much of the media attention on the case centers around Zimmerman’s legal defense: self-defense. This leads to ridiculous re-enactments of the alleged fight between Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, speculations about who was in better shape, who initiated physical contact, and who was winning the fight, and claims by both sides that it was one or the other who was heard on the phone crying for help. In addition, gun rights supporters point to Florida’s “stand your ground” law, claiming that it gives Zimmerman the right to use deadly force instead of retreating. I will demonstrate here that they should reconsider that position.
All of the aforementioned topics are really irrelevant in this case, nothing more than distractions from the central issue: given that both men technically had a legal right to be where they were, the party at fault is whoever committed the first crime. Let me explain. Despite the fact that gun rights supporters and the talking heads on Fox News cite the “stand your ground” law as legal justification for Zimmerman’s actions, and gun-o-phobes on the other side point to the law as a problematic statute that empowers paranoid gun owners to take life indiscriminately, this case has nothing to do with “stand your ground” whatsoever.
For starters, Zimmerman waived his right to a “stand your ground” pretrial immunity hearing, at which a judge could have determined that Zimmerman had a right to “meet force with force,” preventing any criminal or civil trial from proceeding. Zimmerman and his attorneys waived that defense, instead deciding to go to a criminal trial in which he would argue that he acted in self-defense, making the physical altercation the focus of the trial. The attorney for the Martin family has commented that this was a move to keep Zimmerman off the witness stand.
If this wasn’t enough reason to get away from the “stand your ground” discussion, here are a few more. The author the Florida statute has taken up its defense, arguing that according to Zimmerman’s account, he was pinned on the ground under Martin as they fought. Thus, he was not able to flee, and even under Florida law prior to the introduction of “stand your ground,” would have had no duty to decide whether to flee or to stand his ground.
Before moving on to my final few points, let’s look at the Florida “stand your ground” law. According to 20012 Florida State Statutes, Title XLVI, Chapter 776.013: Justifiable Use of Force
“A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
This section allows legally armed citizens to use deadly force against an attacker provided that three conditions are met:
1.) The armed citizen is not engaged in unlawful activity
2.) The armed citizen is attacked in a place where he has a legal right to be
3.) The use of deadly force is allowed only if it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm
As a gun owner and concealed carry permit holder, I can attest that these requirements are the most important things one learns at the required concealed carry training course. I believe two of these requirements were not met, and they will cost Zimmerman his freedom.
As I began this article, we assume that both men had a legal right to be where they were. Certainly the only thing Trayvon Martin was guilty of was “walking while black” in an affluent neighborhood. Neither was Martin engaged in unlawful activity. However, Zimmerman may have been guilty of stalking, under Florida statute Title XLVI, Chapter 784.048: Stalking.
“A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person commits the offense of stalking…”
There is ample evidence that Zimmerman followed Martin against the instructions of a police dispatcher. Furthermore, he demonstrates his willful and malicious intent on the 911 call, when he comments, “this guy looks like he’s up to no good,” and “these assholes always get away… fucking punks.” Therefore, Zimmerman was engaged in unlawful activity when he followed Trayvon Martin, and it becomes completely irrelevant whether or not Martin threw the first punch.
Finally, even if Zimmerman was entitled to physically defend himself—assuming Martin initiated the physical contact—he probably was not justified in using deadly force. The law cited above requires that a person be in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. This is basically about proportionality of force: if you are in a fistfight, you are not justified in shooting someone. In other words, Zimmerman should have taken his ass-beating, and learned his lesson. If he had, Trayvon Martin would still be alive, and George Zimmerman would not be about to lose his freedom.
Gun rights supporters would be wise to recognize Zimmerman for the overzealous vigilante that he is, or they risk losing all credibility in their message of self-defense. Those who are already inclined toward distrust of gun owners and “stand your ground” statutes have found in Zimmerman the perfect example of someone who oversteps his own rights and hurts someone in the process. The inevitable outcome of the gun lobby’s blind support of people like Zimmerman is the erosion of its credibility and the suspicion of common-sense laws like “stand your ground” and the “castle doctrine.” These laws are obviously not the problem, but when they are misapplied in cases like this (by the media and the gun lobby), they replace the triggerman as the suspect.
In the end, Mr. Zimmerman may have set out only to defend his neighborhood, but it was not his to defend—nor was it ever under any threat—and instead of defending, he took what was not his to take: the life of a young man named Trayvon Martin.