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‘Stand your ground’ Cuts Both Ways

JD Lock, Lieutenant Colonel, US Army (Retired)

27 April 2012


On February 26, 28-year old George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer for a gated community in Sanford, Florida, shot and killed with a 9mm handgun at close range Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17 year-old, who was visiting his father within that community.


Prior to this deadly encounter and in a call to the Sanford Police Department, Zimmerman had reported Martin’s appearance and behavior as “suspicious.”  At the same time, Martin was on his cell fearfully telling his girlfriend that he was being followed by Zimmerman.


Despite having been advised by the police not to do so, Zimmerman chose to trail the teenager which, a short time later, resulted in the fatal altercation between the two.  When the police arrived, Zimmerman, reportedly bleeding from the nose and a wound on the back of his head, claimed that Martin had attacked him and that he had shot Martin in self-defense, ‘standing his ground.’


In accordance with Florida’s ‘Stand your Ground’ law, justifiable use of force is a viable defense when “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.”


Ultimately, if I were a jury member at Zimmerman’s trial, I believe I would have to ask myself the following: If I, a frightened black teenager, not engaged in an unlawful activity and in a place where I had a right to be, found myself being pursued and eventually confronted by an armed, threatening and unknown, larger white man, would not Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law allow me to meet force with force given the reasonably perceived threat of great bodily harm to me by this individual?


On December 22, 1984, Bernhard Goetz (aka "the Subway Vigilante”), a white man, believed himself threatened by four alleged black muggers on a subway in Manhattan, New York.  Firing five rounds from a handgun, Goetz seriously wounded all four men.


Ultimately, the defining issue for the Zimmerman case may not be who struck whom initially but who felt threatened enough, first, to ‘cloak’ himself in Florida’s stand your ground statute.  In Goetz’s case, armed with a gun, he struck first against a perceived threat, lived, and was found not guilty of attempted murder; in Martin’s case, armed with just his fists, he, too, may have struck first against a perceived threat but died when ‘outgunned.’


Given that a case can likely be made that Trayvon Martin was equally entitled to stand your ground protection, I trust the eventual lesson learned is not that it’s best to treat ‘stand your ground’ states as the Wild West, pack a larger weapon and draw first.  Unfortunately, though, that just may prove to be the ultimate legacy of this most unfortunate tragedy.

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