The Trayvon Martin tragedy is shining a national spotlight on “stand your ground” laws in at least 21 states.
The laws – in places such as Texas, Idaho and Alaska – allow everyday citizens to use deadly force against someone else if they fear for their life. They also say people do not have to retreat if threatened or attacked.
George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Fla., fatally shot Trayvon as the 17-year-old was walking to his father’s home from a 7-Eleven.
Police have said officers were prohibited from arresting Zimmerman because he claimed to have used “justifiable” force.
The case has triggered a wave of public outcry to change or repeal Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
Trayvon Martin was talking on his cellphone when he was shot and killed in February.
“You want to know how you can kill somebody legally in Florida?” says Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “Make sure you have no witnesses, hunt the person down and then say you feared for your life.”
Hayhoe says he has about a dozen cases on his desk now similar to Trayvon’s case. He says in those cases, gunmen say they were defending themselves and have not been charged, leaving grieving relatives to wonder why the shooters have not been charged.
Florida’s “stand your ground” law emerged after a man shot and killed a burglar who officials say was trying to break into the man’s RV in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in 2005. The man waited months before learning he would not be charged with murder.
The FBI considers a homicide committed by a private citizen justified when a person is slain during the commission of a felony, such as burglary or robbery.
The case inspired then-Florida state senator Durell Peaden, a Republican, to introduce a bill dealing with similar situations. Florida state representative Dennis Baxley, the bill’s House sponsor, told USA TODAY the law empowers people to defend themselves and should not be challenged in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case.
“Every time you have an adverse incident, immediately the anti-gun faction will say this law is the problem,” Baxley, a Republican, said, adding that violent crime in Florida has dropped since its implementation. “As public policy, it is fulfilling its purpose and working well. The perpetrators know everyone has the right to defend themselves. … I think that has been a strong deterrent.”
Since the law was enacted in 2005, the number of justifiable homicides in Florida has skyrocketed, said state Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Democrat who represents the area in Miami where Trayvon lived with his mother. In 2005, there were 43 such cases; in 2009, the last complete year available, there were 105, he said.
Nationally, justifiable homicides by private citizens have been slowly rising since 2005. The number in 2010, the last full year measured by the FBI, showed 278 such killings, the most in 15 years. The FBI uses a more restrictive methodology than Florida, only counting those people who are slain during the commission of a felony.
Baxley thinks the jump in justifiable homicides shows the law is working. “The perpetrator suffered instead of the person they were victimizing. … That’s what those numbers mean,” he said.
Some gun control advocates, including Daniel Vice, senior attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the numbers underscore an increasingly aggressive mentality on the streets fueled in part by state laws, including Florida’s, that afford shooters broader interpretations of self-defense in violent encounters outside the home.
“It’s part of this increasing effort to push more guns into more public places. This is the (National Rifle Association’s) vision for America,” Vice said, referring to the gun lobby’s support of more permissive gun laws.
The NRA didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Braynon has called for hearings or a select committee to clarify what constitutes self-defense under Florida’s law. Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he supports a review of the law.
Florida does not track or keep statistics on cases where someone uses a “stand your ground” defense, said Bill Eddins, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. Based on speaking with prosecutors statewide, more people seem to use the defense, he said.
“It’s been great for defense lawyers,” said Richard Rosenbaum, a criminal defense attorney in Fort Lauderdale. “It has helped a lot of people get off on self-defense that would have been found guilty before 2005.”