Stand Your Ground or Last Man Standing

The controversial law returns us to a state in which mutual distrust spirals into needless violence.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted July 31, 2013 in Blog (Last Updated July 31, 2013)

The death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, and the latter's subsequent acquittal on the charge of second degree murder, demonstrates forcefully why Stand Your Ground laws have no place in a civil, law-based society.

The audio recording of Zimmerman's 911 call is instructive. You can also read a transcript.

Zimmerman, a self-styled neighbourhood watch patrol, phoned in to report "a real suspicious guy" who "looks like he's up to no good" because Martin was walking calmly in the rain looking at houses as he passed them.

Zimmerman complained, "These assholes, they always get away."

You can hear the sound of movement and Zimmerman sounds out of breath. The dispatcher asked, "Are you following him?"

Zimmerman replied, "Yeah."

The dispatcher said, "Okay, we don't need you to do that."

The dispatcher then tried to get Zimmerman to return to his car and wait for the police. Instead, Zimmerman asked for the police to call him when they arrived so he could meet them.

Zimmerman continued to pursue Martin despite being directed not to by the dispatcher. That pursuit led to a confrontation, and that confrontation led to Zimmerman shooting Martin point-blank in the chest and killing him.

There is some uncertainty over whether Martin attacked Zimmerman during the confrontation, but it is clear that the confrontation took place because Zimmerman took it upon himself to protect his neighbourhood from Martin.

Keep this in mind: Martin was doing nothing wrong when Zimmerman confronted him. He was unarmed and walking lawfully toward his own place of residence with a pack of Skittles in his pocket after a trip to the convenience store.

If you were walking alone at night and an angry, suspicious stranger pursued you, how would you react?

The idea behind Florida's Stand Your Ground law is that a citizen has the right to use force, including deadly force, in the defence of self and property from danger. Specifically, it maintains that an individual does not have any responsibility to try and avoid a confrontation or retreat from danger in any location where the individual is legally allowed to be present.

The reason Zimmerman was not convicted is that Stand Your Ground covers his shooting as self-defence, even though Martin was not trespassing on Zimmerman's property and it was Zimmerman who pursued and confronted Martin. Thanks to Stand Your Ground, Zimmerman's jury was instructed that he had no duty to retreat from conflict, so any uncertainty over who attacked first was enough to provide a reasonable doubt and acquit him.

Zimmerman's supporters defend Zimmerman's right to DIY vigilanteeism and violence in patrolling his gated community. Strangely, those same people seem silent on the question of whether Martin also had a right to "stand his ground" when a stranger pursued and confronted him after deciding he was a threat.

What if the exchange had unfolded differently? What if Martin had killed Zimmerman instead of the other way around? Would Martin be the one acquitted of second degree murder thanks to Florida's Stand Your Ground law, since he had a right to defend himself from this stranger who made him feel threatened?

In a situation where there are two people who mutually feel threatened by each other, Stand Your Ground creates a situation in which personal security becomes a positional good that can accrue only to the stronger party in the exchange, at the expense of the weaker party.

In other words, Stand Your Ground replaces the rule of law with the primitive concept of might makes right that the rule of law was supposed to replace. It squanders the positive sum game that a level legal playing field provides and returns us to a state in which mutual distrust spirals into needless violence.