“Stand Your Ground” Laws have been controversial since the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.
What are “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws? Generally, the law concerns the justifiable use of force as protection against endangerment by another party. But the law goes further: A person is justified in using force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he/she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself/herself or a third party or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony (emphasis added for clarity).
Of all states with SYG laws, Florida has one of the strongest. In Florida, a person has “no duty to retreat” and the law provides immunity from criminal prosecution and civil actions. The state’s most notable case was that of George Zimmerman. The interpretation of the law allowed Zimmerman to kill in cold blood and walk away a free man.
Why are people who carry guns, especially concealed and loaded ones, treated better by the law than those who don’t? Senseless killings continue to happen across the country; innocent people are shot to death in the course of normal, everyday activities such as driving a car or jogging down the street.
Do SYG laws encourage aggressive behavior and the use of guns, allegedly in self-defense?
Because the U.S. has legal presumption of innocence, the prosecution has the burden of proving the victim’s story and/or disproving an accused’s self-defense argument, but in most cases the victim is dead.
Take the recent death of Ahmaud Arbery, a young, black man who went out for a jog on February 23. Along his route, he was confronted by two white men, Gregory and Travis McMichael. A confrontation ensued and Arbery was shot to death. What happened?
According to the McMichaels, Arbery resembled a man who had recently committed a series of burglaries in the neighborhood, so they decided to confront him. But first, they grabbed a couple of guns. The father and son duo said they when they approached Arbery, he “violently attacked” Travis. Travis subsequently fired the fatal shots, claiming it was in self-defense. It wasn’t until video footage of the incident began to circulate that this story gained national attention and outrage. The video, which appears to have been shot by someone inside another vehicle, contradicts claims made by the McMichaels’. As you watch, you will see a pickup truck stopped in the middle of the road. One man is standing in the street, the other is in the bed of the truck. Both are armed. As Arbery jogs around the side of the truck, he is confronted by the man in the street. The footage ends with three gunshots and Arbery lying dead in the street.
It wasn’t until after the video hit the media circuit that a district attorney recommended the case be presented to a grand jury. Only yesterday were the two men arrested. Why did it take two months for the arrest? Speculation suggests Gregory McMichael had a lengthy career as a police officer and investigator before recently retiring.
So why do questions about the pursuit of justice remain if there is video evidence and arrests have been made? Is it simply McMichael’s police career? No; remember where we began. Georgia, where the incident took place, has a SYG law.
To give the McMichaels the benefit of the doubt, Georgia’s SYG law does permit the use force to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. Does that justify the shooting? No; the law requires that the felony be perpetrated in front of the assailant. They would have been permitted to use deadly force while witnessing a robbery, but they were not if they merely believed someone who posed no apparent threat seemed to resemble a suspect who had already committed a robbery.
A “Stand Your Ground” law will most likely be the focal point of a criminal investigation into Arbery’s death.
Was this another incident of an innocent, unarmed black man being gunned down because of the erroneous presumptions and unnecessary action of white men? Critics say that SYG laws not only encourage the use of deadly force but allow for legal racial bias. In fact, according to a study by Texas A&M University, there are striking racial disparities in how the laws play out once a defendant claims self-defense. In SYG states, when a white shooter kills a black victim, 34% of resulting homicides were deemed justifiable, while only 3% of deaths were ruled justifiable when the shooter was black and the victim was white. Additionally, the study found no evidence that Stand Your Ground laws deter crime. In fact, it seems all too often that the law has been used to protect criminals rather than innocent victims. That is why some critics have dubbed the law – “Shoot First.”
Tragic incidents like those of Trayvon and Ahmaud are happening far too often; enough to wonder if Stand Your Ground laws are returning us back to the wild, wild west and vigilante justice. No one should have to fear for their life every time they want a little exercise or get pulled over in a traffic stop. These laws only open the door to a more dangerous country, one where everyone feels the need to carry a gun, and if threatened – shoot first and ask questions later. Is that the America you want to live in? Is that the country you want for your children and grandchildren?
Mark M. Bello is an attorney and author of Betrayal in Black, the fourth novel in the Zachary Blake Betrayal series, which pays homage to the victims of such tragedies. This gripping novel closely examines the shooting death of an innocent black man, the consequences to those caught up in the aftermath, and whether Black Lives Matter to police forces in modern America.