The Trayvon Martin case has been rising slowly in the news. We don’t know everything a this point. But a basic picture has emerged.
George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch volunteer with a long history of calling in everything from open garage doors to “suspicious characters,” called police to say he had spotted someone who looked drugged, was walking too slowly in the rain, and appeared to be looking at people’s houses. Zimmerman sounded alarmed because the stranger had his hand in his waistband and held something in his other hand.
The unarmed teen was carrying Skittles and a can of Arizona iced tea.
Zimmerman said he had stepped out of his truck to check the name of the street he was on when Trayvon attacked him from behind as he walked back to his truck, police said. He said he feared for his life and fired the semiautomatic handgun he was licensed to carry because he feared for his life.
Read the whole thing. The investigation of Zimmerman appears to have been cursory. The more information that emerges, the worse this looks. Zimmerman called the police, who warned him to back off, that they would handle it. And Martin was apparently on the phone to his girlfriend at the time, worried about the man following him:
Eventually he would run, said the girl, thinking that he’d managed to escape. But suddenly the strange man was back, cornering Martin. “Trayvon said, ‘What, are you following me for,’ and the man said, ‘What are you doing here.’ Next thing I hear is somebody pushing, and somebody pushed Trayvon because the head set just fell. I called him again and he didn’t answer the phone.”
There were no direct witness so we don’t know precisely what happened, who initiated the encounter and whether Zimmerman was justified in shooting. We may never know. But I think Martin was owed a much more thorough investigation than the one that appears to have been made.
As is often the case, the usual suspects are emerging to blame Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which sides with people defending themselves in public areas from criminals. I have a few thoughts on this aspect of the case.
First of all, many of them are objecting not to Florida’s perhaps overly generous law but to the idea of “stand your ground” entirely. Several have said we should return to the “duty to retreat” principles that defined our gun laws for so long. Under this paradigm, self defense is only allowed when retreat is impossible. Ted Kennedy, in his thankfully failed Presidential run, wanted to establish “duty to retreat” as a federal law even for people in their own homes. But you have a fundamental right of self-defense … yes, even in the public streets.
But, in my view, “duty to retreat” is basically ceding public areas to criminals. It posits that it is the duty of the law abiding to flee. It returns us to the idea that the police should have a monopoly power on the use of force. Given the problems the police sometimes have with their use of this power, I’m not happy with that.
Let’s step back a moment from this tragedy and imagine a different scenario: an armed criminal wandering a neighborhood. Is it the duty of the citizens to flee into their homes and call the cops in the hope that maybe, eventually, something will be done? I’m with John Locke on this one: if you meet someone who intends you harm, you are in the state of nature. The law works in a reactive, not proactive way.
Now, that having been said, I think that Florida’s law has some issues, if not in conception than at least in execution (no pun intended). The right to bear arms also comes with responsibility. If we respect the right of people to bear arms in public we also have to hold them accountable when they do dumb, stupid and deadly things with them. “Stand your grand” should not empower people to wander the streets shooting suspicious characters and not being held accountable. Some of the examples cited in the articles above are disturbing — people have been exonerated from murder or homicide charges when they clearly intended or initiated violent contact.
So the gun-grabbers are absolutely wrong on the principle: you have a fundamental right to defend yourself, even in a public space, even when cops are only a phone call and a long wait away. But there is a need to hold people accountable when they exercise their right to bear arms irresponsibly. And if the reports of this case are accurate, it is likely the Zimmerman was irresponsible in how he acted. And he should be held accountable.