On February 26th, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking down the street in Sanford, Florida, when he was confronted by 28-year-old George Zimmerman. Trayvon Martin was carrying a can of iced tea and a bag of candy; George Zimmerman had a license to carry a concealed weapon and a 9 millimeter handgun.
Florida’s weak concealed handgun licensing law enabled Zimmerman, who had been previously arrested for battering a police officer, and whose neighbors had complained about his aggressive behavior, to legally carry a hidden, loaded handgun in public.
Zimmerman 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 cornered the unarmed teenager, shot, and killed him. Afterward, the shooter claimed to be acting in self-defense; to date, he has not been charged with any crime.
Florida’s extreme “Stand Your Ground” law, which establishes a low threshold to justify the use of deadly force, may now protect his implausible claim of self-defense. These laws create a poisonous recipe for tragedy: an innocent young man is now dead and his killer may be shielded from justice.
Florida’s weak laws are not unique. Too many states allow virtually anyone who meets low minimum requirements to carry a concealed handgun in public, regardless of whether the person has any real need to carry a deadly weapon. Too many states also safeguard shooters from accountability for the terrible acts of violence they commit in the name of self-defense.
To learn more about all the places that people can carry hidden, loaded weapons in public, read our publication Guns in Public Places.
Serious reform is needed if we are going to prevent future tragedies like the terrible death of young Trayvon Martin.
Since killing Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman has claimed that he acted in self-defense, seeking cover under Florida’s extreme “Stand Your Ground” law. To date, Zimmerman has not been charged with any crime.
[Please note: the following analysis of “Shoot First”/”Stand Your Ground” has subsequently been updated. You can find the updated analysis on the Law Center’s “Shoot First” page.]
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” Law
When a person is confronted with a possible threat to his or her safety in a public place, under traditional principles, the person must retreat as much as is practicable before using deadly force in self-defense. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which was adopted in 2005, provides 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, the law hampers the prosecution of individuals who unlawfully use deadly force to injure and kill.
Other States Have Similar “Stand Your Ground” Laws
Florida’s weak laws are not unique. Twenty-five states, including Florida, have “Stand Your Ground” laws, containing provisions that generally allow the use of deadly force in self-defense with no duty to retreat when outside the home. The twenty-five states with these laws are:
Another seven states have limited “Stand Your Ground” laws that extend to specific locations outside the home, including a vehicle or place of business or employment. These laws, however, are not as broad as the Florida law:
Other States Are Considering “Stand Your Ground” Legislation
In 2012, legislation is or was pending in six states (Alaska, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska and New York) that would eliminate the duty to retreat outside of the home. The Iowa bill has already been passed by the House of Representatives; the Minnesota bill was vetoed.
Three additional states (Indiana, New Jersey, and Oklahoma) considered related legislation this year. The Indiana legislation, which has been signed into law, allows the use of force to resist law enforcement’s entry into one’s home.
“Stand Your Ground”: A Recipe for Tragedy
Since Florida adopted its “Stand Your Ground” law in 2005, and other states followed suit, the FBI has seen a steady increase in occurrences of “justifiable homicides” by private citizens nationwide, from 238 in 2006 to 278 in 2010, even though violent crime decreased by 13.2% during the same period. In Florida, a 2010 investigation by the St. Petersburg Times found that the “Stand Your Ground” law had been employed 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.”
George Zimmerman is not the only individual with a license to carry a concealed weapon who has killed an innocent person. According to an analysis of news reports by the Violence Policy Center, people with concealed handgun licenses have killed at least 391 people nationwide since May 2007, including 11 law enforcement officers.
Pending Federal Legislation Would Jeopardize Public Safety
Florida’s weak concealed handgun licensing law enabled George Zimmerman, who had been previously arrested for battering a police officer, and whose neighbors had complained about his aggressive behavior, to legally carry a hidden, loaded handgun in public.
Legislation currently pending in the U.S. Senate (S. 2188 and S. 2213) would force every state that licenses concealed carry to recognize licenses from every other state, despite significant differences in states’ licensing requirements. Because law enforcement in Florida claims that Zimmerman’s license cannot be suspended until he is charged with a crime, if either of these “forced reciprocity” bills became law, George Zimmerman (and countless potentially dangerous individuals like him) would be able to carry concealed weapons in public places nationwide.