When the National Rifle Association managed to successfully lobby Florida legislators to adopt a law we now know as stand your ground, it’s unlikely the group figured the law might be employed by an unarmed black teenager accosted by a guy with a gun out prowling the streets on a rainy winter’s night in a pickup truck.
Despite the possibility that each assumed it was the other acting suspiciously, it’s little wonder then that Trayvon Martin’s reacting in self-defense is the narrative supporters of George Zimmerman have so stridently avoided in the days before and after a jury of six women determined the overly zealous neighborhood watch volunteer had no guilt in the shooting death of the 17-year-old, who Zimmerman spotted skulking about in the darkness on that February night in 2012. Martin, we are told, was the aggressor; Zimmerman the one defending his life.
It was the doughy Zimmerman after all, who, after confronting the teen soon found himself at a disadvantage — Martin, it turned out, was a scrappy kid who apparently knew how to throw a punch.
We’ll never know what Martin’s rationale might have been for going on the offensive. After enduring several minutes of being targeted and followed by Zimmerman, to see his accuser face to face he could have decided to teach him a lesson, to give him the bloody nose he deserved.
Defenders of Zimmerman haven’t just wanted to avoid the idea that Martin might have been acting in self-defense — it’s there for the discerning: according to statements made by Zimmerman in recreating the incident and in the sometimes unreliable testimony of Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel; Zimmerman reached for the teen then lost his balance as the two grappled with one another before Martin got the upper hand — have gleefully cast Martin as the aggressor, trotting out as relevant his own brushes with school authorities and the police while minimizing the block-sized chip on Zimmerman’s shoulder. As part of a significant deflection, conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan in his most recent column reminds us of the staggering statistic of black crime in the United States as if such statistics justify the occasional popping off of a suspicious-looking black kid.
Unsurprisingly, Buchanan misses the point (by a mile). There was no black crime in progress in the matter between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. It is highly unlikely that Martin intended to beat Zimmerman to death, protestations by Zimmerman attorney Don West about the deadly “sidewalk” to the contrary. It was Zimmerman, a neighborhood volunteer and mentor for African-American teens, who provoked the confrontation and introduced the element of lethality into it, turning what might have been a simple misunderstanding or at worst an assault and battery into a struggle for life and death over possession of a firearm.
Zimmerman waived his right to a stand your ground defense but the law was cited a number of times at his trial and there have been at least two subsequent incidents where the law has been invoked by an assailant with a handgun. A recent Tampa Bay Times investigation has found almost 200 instances since 2005 where stand your ground has been employed.
As the Washington Post pointed out in an editorial this week, letting out the seams in Castle doctrines and expanding the right to use lethal force in the public realm has resulted in the overturning of centuries of “legal application.” The incident with George Zimmerman is exactly what we should expect with such laws — citizens so emboldened by their rights, they fail to recognize that retreating in the face of danger is another kind of self-defense.
Have gun, will travel.
—Robert Snyder is editor of
the Spirit of Jefferson