Posted on May 1, 2012
Updated May 1, 2012
The Death of Trayvon Martin
On February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking down the street in Sanford, Florida, when he was confronted by 28-year-old George Zimmerman. Zimmerman, who possessed a 9-millimeter handgun and a state-issued license to carry a concealed weapon, had been following Martin in his car, telling the police in a 911 call that Trayvon looked “real suspicious” because he was “just walking around looking about.” Zimmerman pursued the unarmed teenager, then shot and killed him.
Since killing Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman has claimed that he acted in self-defense, seeking cover under Florida’s extreme “Shoot First” law (also known as a “Stand Your Ground” law). After much delay, and amid a nationwide call for justice for Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman was finally charged with second-degree murder on April 11, 2012.
Florida’s “Shoot First” Law
Under traditional principles, when a person is confronted with a possible threat to his or her safety in a public place, the person must retreat as much as is practicable before using deadly force in self-defense. Florida’s “Shoot First” law radically departs from these principles, providing that a person who reasonably believes that deadly force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm has no duty to retreat from a confrontation outside the home before engaging in deadly force.
In reality, Florida’s law shields individuals who use deadly force to injure or kill, by granting civil and criminal immunity to any shooter who convinces a judge that he or she reasonably believed a threat existed by a preponderance of the evidence. Florida’s law even prohibits law enforcement agencies from arresting a person who used deadly force in self-defense unless the agency determines that probable cause exists that the force used was unlawful. In certain circumstances, the law actually creates a presumption that a shooter had a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm when using deadly force.
NRA/ALEC Efforts to Push “Shoot First” Nationwide
Florida’s “Shoot First” law was pushed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), and was adopted by the state legislature despite widespread opposition in 2005. Efforts to advance “Shoot First” nationwide accelerated later that same year, when the conservative, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) adopted a model law bearing many similarities to Florida’s law. The ALEC model was developed in conjunction with the NRA, which has funded ALEC for years and, until 2011, co-chaired the council’s Public Safety and Elections task force that developed the model “Shoot First” law.
Since 2005, many states have adopted either part or all of the ALEC model law. After widespread outcry and the loss of a number of corporate sponsors following the death of Trayvon Martin, ALEC recently announced that it was disbanding the Public Safety and Elections task force. The NRA, however, shows no signs of ceasing its efforts to convince states to adopt dangerous, expansive “Shoot First” laws nationwide.
A Majority of States Have “Shoot First” Laws
Since 2005, twenty-six states, including Florida, have adopted “Shoot First” statutes that generally permit the use of deadly force in self-defense in public places with no duty to retreat. These states are:
* In these states, the “Shoot First” statute only applies when the shooter is in a vehicle.
Before Florida adopted its law, the state of Utah adopted the nation’s first “Shoot First” law, permitting the use of deadly force in self-defense in public with no duty to retreat, in 1994.
Seven additional states—California, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington—permit the use of deadly force in self-defense in public with no duty to retreat through a combination of statutes, judicial decisions, and/or jury instructions. These states are distinct from true “Florida-style” laws in several respects, however. For one, many of the “Shoot First” protections established in these states may only be invoked during criminal trials, as opposed to the Florida law and the ALEC model, which enable a shooter to escape liability in a pretrial hearing. Additionally, these states do not have some of the especially onerous elements found in the Florida law, such as the provision preventing law enforcement from arresting a shooter without probable cause that the force used was unlawful.
Several States Have Considered Adopting or Repealing “Shoot First” Legislation This Year
In 2012, legislators in six states (Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York and Washington) introduced bills to eliminate the duty to retreat outside of the home. Additionally, an Alaska legislator introduced a bill to expand that state’s “Shoot First” law. The Iowa bill has already been passed by the House of Representatives. The Minnesota bill was vetoed, and the Nebraska bill died.
Five additional state legislatures (Colorado, Indiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Oklahoma) introduced related legislation this year. The Indiana bill, which has been signed into law, allows the use of force to resist law enforcement’s entry into one’s home if the person using force reasonably believes that entry would be unlawful. The bill was strongly opposed by Indiana law enforcement agencies.
Increased public awareness about “Shoot First” laws following the Trayvon Martin shooting has led legislators in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina to propose repealing either part or all of their states’ “Shoot First” laws. Additionally, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the leaders of a number of national African-American organizations recently launched “Second Chance on Shoot First,” a national grassroots coalition seeking the repeal or reform of “Shoot First” laws across the country.
In Florida, Governor Rick Scott has appointed a task force to review the state’s law. A separate task force led by State Senator Chris Smith has already issued a report recommending significant reforms, including the removal of the provision preventing the arrest of a shooter who claims self-defense, and the elimination or limitation of immunity for a shooter where the alleged attacker was unarmed or fleeing.
The Deadly Impact of “Shoot First” Laws
In Florida, a 2010 investigation by the St. Petersburg Times found that the law had been invoked in at least 93 criminal cases involving 65 deaths, including “deadly neighbor arguments, bar brawls, road rage — even a gang shoot-out — that just as easily might have ended with someone walking away.” A follow-up investigation earlier this year increased the total number of cases in Florida to date to 130, over 70 percent of which involved a death. The Tampa Bay Times found that, “In the majority of the cases, the person who plunged the knife or swung the bat or pulled the trigger did not face a trial. In 50 of the cases, the person who used force was never charged with a crime.”
Additionally, many states, including Florida, that have adopted “Shoot First” laws have seen significant increases in the occurrence of “justifiable homicides” committed by private citizens. According a review of FBI data by the Washington Post, “In the five years before the law’s passage, Florida prosecutors declared ‘justifiable’ an average of 12 killings by private citizens each year…But in the five years after the law passed, that number spiked to an average of 36 justifiable killings per year.”
Weak Concealed Handgun Laws Grant Licenses to Kill
“Shoot First” laws become exponentially more dangerous when paired with laws that grant large numbers of people licenses to carry concealed firearms in public places. Florida’s concealed handgun licensing law enabled George Zimmerman, who had been previously arrested for battering a law enforcement officer, had a restraining order issued against him in 2005 amid allegations of domestic violence, and whose neighbors had complained about his aggressive behavior, to legally carry a hidden, loaded handgun in public. Currently, thirty-five states require law enforcement officers to issue concealed handgun licenses to individuals who meet very minimal requirements; four states even allow people to carry concealed weapons statewide without permits.
Trayvon Martin would not have been killed if George Zimmerman had not been granted a license to carry a concealed weapon by the State of Florida. Sadly, Zimmerman is not the only individual with a license to carry a concealed weapon who has killed an innocent person. An analysis of news reports by the Violence Policy Center has identified at least 402 people, including 11 law enforcement officers, killed nationwide by individuals with concealed handgun licenses since May 2007. Given the limitations of news reports, the actual number of individuals killed by concealed handgun licensees is likely significantly higher.
Pending Federal Legislation Would Further Jeopardize Public Safety
Legislation currently pending in the U.S. Senate (S. 2188 and S. 2213) would force every state that issues concealed carry licenses to recognize licenses from every other state, despite significant differences in states’ licensing requirements. “Forced reciprocity” would require states to recognize the concealed weapons licenses of armed vigilantes like George Zimmerman in public places nationwide.