The “Stand Your Ground” Myth

Eric Holder would rather you flee your ground than stand it.

Photo by Tim Boyles/Getty Images

Now that the first disbelieving Trayvon Martin rallies are over, civil rights activists and the Obama administration have turned their attention back to a Florida law that baffled them when they heard about it last year. “There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if — and the ‘if’ is important — if no safe retreat is available,” said Attorney General Eric Holder at this week’s NAACP meeting. (The meeting was held in Orlando, a short drive down the highway from Sanford.) “But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely.”

Conservatives have responded with two arguments. One: There’s no data tying “stand your ground” laws to increased violence. There are just some heart-rending stories—stories that distract us from what could have happened without the laws in place. Two: The “stand your ground” law had nothing to do with the Zimmerman verdict. “The only time Stand Your Ground came up during the trial proper was when a prosecution witness stated that he’d taught a class Zimmerman had attended that covered Stand Your Ground,” wrote Sterling Beard in National Review. “The jury received standard instructions,” wrote Michelle Malkin. “Zimmerman did not invoke the Stand Your Ground provision.” My old colleague Jacob Sullum makes the best argument, reminding the mob that “giving the defendant the benefit of the doubt is not unique to Florida.”

All true, but the instructions to the jury went into detail about what might constitute “justifiable use of deadly force.”

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.

Sullum’s responded to that, arguing that “the fact that a legal provision was mentioned in the instructions does not necessarily mean it was relevant in reaching a verdict.” But does the fact that it didn’t come up in the defense mean it’s wholly irrelevant? The Zimmerman team built a sympathetic case around its client, not really needing to cite a still “controversial” (though popular) law to argue that the guy was going to be killed by a younger, fitter man who’d pinned him to the pavement. If House Republicans can hold vote after vote attempting to undo the Affordable Care Act, I see no reason why the NAACP et al can’t challenge the wisdom of stand your ground.