Last week, the nation was shocked to learn of the killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old black male who was shot to death on the streets of Sanford, Florida. What makes this case particularly noteworthy is that the shooter, George Zimmerman, has not been arrested or charged with a criminal act.
Why, you ask? Because Florida, like 21 other states, has adopted a controversial “Stand Your Ground” Law. This law allows individuals who believe they are in imminent danger of being injured or killed, to “stand their ground” and defend themselves, even when this occurs outside their home. This includes the use of lethal force. The result of this law has been a huge increase in self-defense cases, and not everyone agrees that these results are acceptable.
There are many ethical issues that one might raise regarding the Trayvon Martin case. Instead of these, however, I want to first focus more specifically on the Stand Your Ground Law itself, and think about what arguments we might be able to give in favor of, and against it. Since I’m a philosopher, rather than a lawyer, I’ll be utilizing the philosophical toolkit of logic and critical analysis, rather than appealing to previous case law or judicial interpretations.
As I see it, there are two particularly significant components of this law, which require substantive arguments to support them. First, the Stand Your Ground laws eliminate the duty to try to avoid violent confrontation, if you can. Prior to the adoption of Stand Your Ground, a person who believed they were being threatened had to try to avoid trouble before defending themselves.
Stand Your Ground eliminates this duty, replacing it with a right to defend yourself, even if it would be reasonable to remove yourself from the situation instead. More importantly for the Trayvon Martin case, it allows a person to defend themselves in public places, as well as their own homes.
The second component of Stand Your Ground laws that need argumentative support is the provision that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the benefit of the doubt is given to the person who pleads self-defense. The idea here, I take it, is simply that when police investigators have no evidence which contradicts a person’s claim of self-defense, it is taken for granted that their claims of self-defense are true.
Clearly, this second provision is a function of the first. We could not have a law which allowed a person to defend themselves against perceived imminent threat unless they had some measure of legal protection for doing so.
In my next post, I’ll consider arguments for Stand Your Ground laws. Later, I’ll look at arguments against such laws, and conclude by looking more closely at whether Travyon Martin’s killing is even a candidate for a Stand Your Ground defense. By thinking carefully about the arguments on both sides, hopefully we can get a clearer sense of what is really at stake in this case. Stay tuned!
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.