One of the many troubling aspects of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman was how quickly the popular debate that emerged after the deadly encounter descended into the dark, partisan corners of American life. The many “sides” which materialized to defend the gun-toting neighborhood watch volunteer and the memory of a young man taken senselessly from his family were able to review the same facts and witness accounts--such as they were--and come to startlingly different conclusions about what transpired that rainy night in Sanford, Florida.
The case stirred the thoroughly American toxic stew of race, gun rights, white paranoia, the fairness of the American criminal justice system, even the nuances of street demeanor and style. Soon after Zimmerman’s defense began it was the memory of Trayvon Martin that seemed to be on trial, not the man eager to stamp out crime in his neighborhood who neglected to see Trayvon Martin as his neighbor too. Trayvon was instantly suspect because of his youth and appearance. It is the kind of street profiling that happens all the time in “stop and frisk” America, and this time it was a presupposition that proved deadly.
Whatever one thinks of the jury verdict, the case highlights some areas where greater public scrutiny and legislative intervention seem warranted. Because of a injudiciously rapid expansion of right-to-carry policies, too many are carrying lethal force wherever they go with as little reserve as throwing a cellphone into a backpack. That carelessness combined with Florida’s stand your ground laws create the perfect foundation for more such pointlessly fatal encounters. Had Zimmerman been unarmed, Trayvon Martin would undoubtedly have made it home safely that night with his Skittles and iced tea.
And if “stand your ground” were not legally endorsed as a reasonable defense for the use of lethal force, then the jury which acquitted George Zimmerman would have had to do more than accept the meagre explanation of the last man left standing that night in Sanford.
Update/Correx: I appear to have been guilty of contributing to a media conflation of the problems associated with "stand your ground" laws with George Zimmerman's defense strategy. Zimmerman's attorneys never invoked "stand your ground," although it was mentioned by the prosecution which was trying to demonstrate inconsistencies in Zimmerman's statements to investigators (whether or not he was familiar with this doctrine). The defense relied on standard self-defense arguments since, according to Zimmerman's account of the incident, he was not in a position to retreat from Martin. I think the overarching danger of loose gun laws and stand your ground policies still pertains, however.
See The American Prospect's Scott Lemieux on this:
[I]t is important not to lose sight of something else: the inadequacy of the law in most states to deal with America's gun culture. Carrying a deadly weapon in public should carry unique responsibilities. In most cases someone with a gun should not be able to escape culpability if he initiates a conflict with someone unarmed and the other party ends up getting shot and killed. Under the current law in many states, people threatened by armed people have few good options, because fighting back might create a license to kill. As the New Yorker's Amy Davidson puts it, "I still don't understand what Trayvon was supposed to do." Unless the law is changed to deal with the large number of people carrying concealed guns, there will be more tragic and unnecessary deaths of innocent people like Trayvon Martin for which nobody is legally culpable. And to make claims of self-defense easier to bring, as Florida and more than 20 other states have done, is moving in precisely the wrong direction.