When I was in high school, the concept of self-defense did not exist.
In my high school’s official student handbook, it was made plain that, in the event that two students fought on school grounds, neither one would be granted the presumption of having acted in self-defense.
As a classmate aptly put it, “If someone starts hitting you, the correct answer is to just stand there and keep getting hit until a teacher happens to walk by and break it up.” Indeed, it seemed that an abjectly passive response to physical harassment was the only way you could be certain not to face disciplinary actions later on.
In the real world, of course, the effective prohibition on defending oneself from harm is utterly unworkable and, in point of fact, morally repugnant. In practice, it would render one either a sitting duck or an unwitting future prison inmate. It leaves only the bullies to decide who gets to live or die.
The principle of self-defense is something on which nearly everyone agrees. The controversy lies only in the details.
There was a great deal of debate about the minutiae of self-defense laws during the trial of George Zimmerman, who last week was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Indeed, self-preservation was the long and the short of Team Zimmerman’s case, which argued that Martin’s behavior on the night of February 26, 2012, caused Zimmerman to fear for his physical well-being to such a degree that he had no choice but to shoot Martin, which he did.
This rationale proved persuasive enough to the six-member jury, which ruled that Zimmerman’s actions were within the boundaries of Florida state law on the matter, and that he was not to be held criminally liable for Martin’s death.
In the meanwhile, the state of Florida has been subject to enormous critical ire. Stevie Wonder vowed never to perform in the state again, while temporary Daily Show host John Oliver declared it the “worst state” in the union. A spliced-together clip of Bugs Bunny circumcising Florida from the continent with a handsaw circulated across online social networks, and most applauded the idea.
The basis for all this antipathy is the provision in Florida’s self-defense laws known as “stand your ground,” enacted in 2005, which licenses anyone fearing for his life to use deadly force against the person he perceives to be threatening him.
The prevailing view is that the looseness of Florida’s policy is sui generis and the only reason George Zimmerman is now a free man.
The prevailing view is wrong. In fact, it’s wrong twice.
For all the press that “stand your ground” has received throughout this ordeal, Zimmerman’s attorneys did not specifically cite it in their argument for acquittal. Instead, they relied on state laws that existed before “stand your ground” was written—clauses that entitle one to execute deadly force if one is being savagely attacked, as Zimmerman allegedly was by Martin. If one takes Zimmerman’s version of events at face value, as the jury did, then the case for self-defense writes itself.
What is more, on the matter of “stand your ground,” Florida is by no means the only state with such low standards for what constitutes justified self-defense. Not even close.
The “duty to retreat” doctrine—an attempt-to-flee-before-shooting statute that used to underlie common law on the matter—has effectively been done away with in no fewer than two dozen states, which have followed Florida’s lead in putting the onus on the prosecution to prove defensive lethal force was not necessary in a given situation, rather than on the defense to prove that it was.
“Castle law,” the 17th century English concept that one can shoot a threatening person with happy abandon should he enter one’s home, has been expanded to include cars and various public places in a similar number of states. The details are by no means identical from state to state, but the principle is the same: If you feel personally endangered and you happen to be armed, fire away.
The fact must be faced: In today’s America, George Zimmerman could have been acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin in jurisdictions from coast to coast. It is not simply a problem for one particular state, even one as silly, dysfunctional and backward as Florida.