It’s Not About "Stand Your Ground"

We should reserve judgment, but it seems that Zimmerman acted lawfully.

By John R. Lott Jr.
March 28, 2012

President Obama, Jesse Jackson, and others have chosen to personalize the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., highlighting the racial issues by expressing concern for people who look like they do or live where “blacks are under attack.” Many conservatives and liberals have also already concluded that the shooter committed a crime. All of these reactions are premature.

In response to the shooting, Florida governor Rick Scott has set up a commission to review the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Gun-control organizations, including the Brady Campaign, have gone beyond this and even more drastically called for the end of right-to-carry laws.

But such outrage should be restrained until we have all of the facts. Zimmerman’s call to the police, which has been heard over and over again, does not appear to tell the whole story. There is other information that appears to back up the shooter’s account. That evidence, rather than racism, might well be the reason that police chose not to arrest the shooter. Fox 35 in Orlando spoke to one eyewitness, identified as “John,” the day after the shooting. He explained: “The guy on the bottom who had a red sweater on was yelling to me: ‘Help, help’ . . . and I told him to stop and I was calling 9-1-1.”

The witness further indicated that it was the guy on top who was doing the hitting, and that the shot occurred while that attack was taking place. The man who shot Martin, George Zimmerman, was the man in the red jacket. The police report corroborates the witness’s account: “While I was in such close contact with Zimmerman, I could observe that his back appeared to be wet and was covered in grass, as if he had been laying on his back on the ground. Zimmerman was also bleeding from the nose and back of his head.” Zimmerman told the police, “I was yelling for someone to help me, but no one would help me.”

Zimmerman and his neighbors seem to have had reason for forming a neighborhood-watch group: During the past year, the Miami Herald reports, eight burglaries, nine thefts, and one shooting occurred in their gated community. And Zimmerman had even caught at least one thief himself.

Prior to the spread of “Stand Your Ground” and “Castle Doctrine” laws, citizens who wanted to defend themselves from a criminal had to retreat as far as possible and then announce to the criminal that they were going to shoot. But obvious problems arise: Forcing a victim to take time to retreat can put their life in jeopardy, and a prosecutor might argue that a victim didn’t retreat sufficiently. There have been many cases where victims have been chased and knocked down a couple of times before firing in self-defense, and yet prosecutors claimed that the victim still could have done more to retreat before firing their gun.

The Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws replaced the original requirement to retreat to a “reasonable person’s” standard, instead stating that lethal force is justified when a reasonable person would believe that a criminal intends to inflict serious bodily harm or death. These laws do not protect those who shoot fleeing criminals in the back, provoke attacks, or use lethal force in the absence of a threat to life or limb.

The difference between the Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws is where they apply: The Castle Doctrine applies in a person’s home, and Stand Your Ground extends the right to any place the defender has a right to have a gun. Forty-one states now have these laws in some form, though most have adopted them in the last decade, and the statutes haven’t caused any problems at all. By case law, six other states protect victims from having to retreat before using deadly force.

Allowing victims to defend themselves not only protects the lives of victims who come under attack, but deters criminals from attacking to begin with. I have myself conducted the only published refereed academic study on these laws, and I found that states adopting Castle Doctrine laws reduced murder rates by 9 percent and overall violent crime by 8 percent.

But Martin’s shooting has raised a lot of confusion over what the Florida law would allow. Irrespective of the Stand Your Ground law, Zimmerman did indeed have the right to investigate a strange person in his neighborhood. And when, before any confrontation, Zimmerman informed the police operator that he was following Martin, the operator’s advice that “we don’t need you to do that” was suggestive, not compulsory. By itself, investigating someone who is a stranger in the neighborhood does not imply a provocation. In addition, Zimmerman claims that Martin attacked him from behind.

If it turns out that the police report and witness are wrong, and Zimmerman was the aggressor, he certainly deserves to be punished. But if Zimmerman was attacked, pummeled, and bloodied by Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman had justification to shoot in self-defense. So far it looks as if the police made the right decision.

John R. Lott Jr. is the author of the third edition of More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2010). He previously served as the chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission. He is also a co-author of the newly released book Debacle: Obama’s War on Jobs and Growth and What We Can Do Now to Regain Our Future (John Wiley & Sons, 2012).