It's a troubling and scary thing to consider, but my take-away from the trial of George Zimmerman is a very clear message that you can take up arms to protect yourself and use deadly force with the thinnest claims of self-defense and the fullest confidence that little, if anything, will happen to you.
This will undoubtedly be true in about half of the country — in states that have enacted stand-your-ground laws in recent years. (Maryland is not one of them, yet.)
Self-defense is a powerful defense, but in Florida and nearly two dozen other states. it is enhanced by the stand-your-ground principle, the notion that you do not have to run from a fight if you'd rather stand there and defend your public space with a gun. Add to this another trend — Supreme Court decisions favorable to gun ownership — and you have the prospect of more deadly force employed by citizens to defend themselves against all threats, real and perceived.
Stand-your-ground laws and liberal gun-carry laws go hand in hand.
Most Americans are law-abiding, peace-loving people with rational minds. Most Americans who own a gun legally would never use one in a reckless manner. Right?
But now consider these factors: Almost as many guns as people in the United States; widespread, unreasonable fears about crime even as crime rates fall; political polarization; social isolation, and now the shooting death of the unarmed Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of the man who shot him.
I regard all that as a formula for more violence, for more cases like the one in Florida.
William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., a Baltimore attorney who built a national reputation for criminal defense and litigation, has sounded this alarm, too. He says stand-your-ground laws are dangerous and should be repealed.
"Everyone — black, white, Hispanic — should be concerned about these radical laws," Murphy says.
In the Zimmerman case, he says, the stand-your-ground aspect of Florida law all but guaranteed the defendant would walk.
To understand the significance of stand-your-ground, here's part of the typical instructions that judges in Maryland (with no stand-your-ground statute) give to juries in cases of self-defense, with my emphasis:
"Before using deadly-force, the defendant is required to make a reasonable effort to retreat. The defendant does not have to retreat if the defendant was in [his or her] home, retreat was unsafe, the avenue of retreat was unknown to the defendant, the defendant was being robbed, the defendant was lawfully arresting the victim."
Now, here's a key part of the Florida judge's instruction in the Zimmerman case, again with my emphasis:
"If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
Murphy says that, given all the evidentiary problems the Zimmerman prosecution faced, the stand-your-ground instruction "gave the jury all it needed to acquit."
While the stand-your-ground principle enjoys support where it is law, it also has been the target of passionate opposition from those who believe it encourages vigilantism. There are efforts to repeal it in Florida, with opponents holding up the Zimmerman case as an example of the law's inherent problems: too broadly defined, with a standard too easily met, especially when the only other witness is dead.
Murphy points to other evidence of stand-your-ground flaws:
A study by an economist at Texas A&M University that found states with stand-your-ground laws have more homicides than states without such laws, though an exact correlation with the statute was hard to pin down.
In Florida last year, reporters for the Tampa Bay Times found startling and creepy consequences after analyzing 200 cases: "Seven years since it was passed, Florida's stand-your-ground law is being invoked with unexpected frequency, in ways no one imagined, to free killers and violent attackers whose self-defense claims seem questionable at best."
The newspaper found that nearly 70 percent of defendants who invoke stand-your-ground had gone free. "One man killed two unarmed people and walked out of jail," the Times reported. "Another shot a man as he lay on the ground. Others went free after shooting their victims in the back. In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim, and still went free."
One other finding from the Times: "Defendants claiming 'stand your ground' are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white."
That's a notable difference, but not as much as I expected. Murphy's right when he says everyone should fight the advance of stand-your-ground laws in a nation loaded with guns.