[Note: this is an update of a post I wrote and published briefly before the verdict came out. Respect for the rule of law made me take down that post, as I thought it implausible that a not guilty verdict would be reached.]
“Do I have to fear for my life if I come visit you in America?”
That’s a question a friend of mine from Germany actually asked, in reference to the Treyvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. In Germany, it’s rare that you shoot someone and then walk away as if nothing happened. That a trial could end in acquittal seemed worse than strange to her. It seemed like something was completely wrong with the judicial or legal system.
First, for all my foreign readers, it appears that the verdict was correctly interpreting the law of the State of Florida. It is also true that the law in the matter, Stand Your Ground, is not unique to this state, but is similarly enacted in a number of states. This does not include the Golden State of California, where I live. So if you want to come and visit me, anyone that shoots you will probably be landing in jail. So please do come and visit.
Second, as far as I am concerned, I feel I would have been much more Treyvon Martin than George Zimmerman under the circumstances. When going through the events of that night, I just think of everything that Zimmerman did wrong – for instance, never identifying himself as armed. If I were walking home alone at night in an unfamiliar neighborhood, I would be unarmed and I would potentially end up dead because some guy thinks I am creepy. So, I will refrain from visiting Florida until they sort out this thing.
Third, much has been made of racism in this case. I don’t really think race was the determining factor, here. George Zimmerman may have profiled Martin as a thug because he was black and wore a hoodie, but that didn’t cause the shooting and death. Actually, the shooting and death, as tragic as they are, were not even the real problem here. People get shot at every day, and we live with it.
The real issue was that George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed man and is walking away scot-free. He can continue carrying as many guns as he likes, can continue stalking unarmed people as long as he wants. Worse still, the random person on the street also can.
The perversion in this case is a direct consequence of the law. Stand Your Ground in essence states that it is up to the prosecution to prove that an armed attack was not self-defense; it’s not up to the defendant. That’s what freed George Zimmerman, in the end: the law said that if he claimed he feared for his death or substantial injury, he had a right to shoot, no matter how much he provoked the situation.
Now, George Zimmerman was an upstanding man, one whom one of the jurors apparently would have welcomed into her neighborhood. But nothing stops not so upstanding men whom the juror would not have welcomed into her neighborhood to use the same logic to simply kill people they dislike. All you have to do is engage them in argument, so that there is a trail of animosity, and then shoot them in private, so you can claim self-defense. Notice that this is perfectly legal in the State of Florida.
The reason laws as idiotic as Stand Your Ground are enacted, my dear puzzled foreign readers, is purely political. There is a segment of the U.S. population that believes guns are a basic human right, and that everyone tried to curtail that right is just trying to subjugate the populace at large. Since a gun is no good if you can’t use it, laws are enacted that make sure you can “safely” use your gun. End of story. (The safely is in scare quotes because it indicates safety from prosecution, not from gun wounds.)
The law belongs into a complex of legislation meant to reassure gun buyers and owners that it’s perfectly safe (legally) to buy a gun. Similar legislation bars lawsuits against gun manufacturers for defects. The people buy into this because they want the feeling of safety that comes from guns, especially when the government is in the hands of the opposing party. You should know that the right to bear arms is constitutionally tied to the right to air grievances against the government.
I should also note that a similarly publicized case, that of Jodi Arias killing her former boyfriend Travis Alexander, had superficial similarities, but ended the other way around. Jodi Arias claimed self-defense from an abusive ex, and stabbed him to death. She was convicted of murder. That’s possibly because she was in California and didn’t use a gun.
As some pointed out, the decision in the Zimmerman case is particularly odd, because there was a different case of a woman firing a warning shot and getting a 20 year prison sentence. Even in Florida, then, shooting does not result in a guaranteed acquittal.
My advice to you: never argue in public with anyone in any state that has a Stand Your Ground law. This article has a handy map. It also tells you that you should avoid an argument in those states twice as much if your skin color is not white.
What should have happened according to me, you ask? Anyone that carries an object meant to be a lethal weapon (as opposed to an object that can be used as such, e.g. scissors) should be aware of the higher responsibility he or she carries. If you are in a situation where you fear for your life, you should be free to use your gun; if it turns out the other person was not a real threat, you should face the penalty that comes from killing someone.
After all, what would five years in jail be, compared to the perfectly senseless death of Treyvon Martin? It is nonsensical to say that George Zimmerman was justified in his shooting, because he had tons of options that wouldn’t have ended in Treyvon Martin’s death. He could have mentioned he had a gun; he could have fired a warning shot; he could have fired a non-lethal shot.
It just cannot be that the law thinks it’s the same whether he would have fired a warning shot or shot with the intent to kill.