Like many people, I’ve been following the Trayvon Martin case with sadness and horror. If you’re not aware of the facts of the case, I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blogging on the subject, as well as work from The Huffington Post and The New York Times.
While the racial dimensions of the case—a young white man follows a “suspicious-looking” black teenager, confronts him, and kills him in “self-defense”—have garnered national attention, it's worth pointing out the extent to which Florida law has made this kind of vigilante action disturbingly common. Over the last five years, according to the Tampa Bay Times, the number of “justifiable homicides” in Florida has doubled from 40 to 50 at the beginning of the last decade, to upward of a hundred since 2007.
The key fact in all of this—and the reason Martin’s shooter isn’t sitting in a jail cell—is Florida’s “stand your ground” legislation, which was signed by Governor Jeb Bush in 2005. The law gives citizens the right to use deadly force anywhere in the state, provided you “reasonably believe” that such action is necessary to stop the other person from hurting you. In 2010 the Tampa Bay Times offered a detailed look at the new status quo in Florida:
Reports of justifiable homicides tripled after the law went into effect, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Last year, twice a week, on average, someone’s killing was considered warranted. […]
For the first half of this decade, the state counted an average of 34 justifiable homicides a year, as few as 31 and as many as 43.
That continued in 2006, the law’s first full year.
But the next three years brought these numbers:
The first six months of 2010: 44.
The Times found at least 93 cases in the last five years that involved the law. They involved neighbor disputes, road rage, and gang fights. Here’s one taste of what Florida unleashed with its machismo-fueled legislation (apologies for the long block quote):
Michael Frazzini, 35, Cape Coral, father of two, decorated Army helicopter pilot who served five tours of duty. Now dead.
Frazzini’s elderly mother thought a 22-year-old neighbor was disturbing her property. One night in 2006, Frazzini stopped by to check things out.
The neighbor later told authorities that he encountered Frazzini wearing a camouflage mask and wielding what looked like a pipe. The neighbor pulled a knife.
The neighbor’s father came out next and, thinking the masked man might attack his son, fired one shot from his .357 revolver into Frazzini’s chest.
Frazzini died in his mother’s back yard. The pipe turned out to be a 14-inch baseball bat.
Here’s what one co-sponsor of the law said at the time:
“The intent is that you can only use the same amount of force as you believe will be used against you,” Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, then a state representative, said at the time. “It certainly wasn’t that you can shoot and kill somebody wielding a souvenir baseball bat.”
There’s a reason Florida police associations opposed the law; if even law enforcement officers act out of fear and uncertainty, there’s no reason to think that the same wouldn’t be true of ordinary people. Put another way, Trayvon Martin is exactly what happens when you empower people to kill to “protect themselves.”
I recommend that you read the full report, just to get a sense of what’s happening in the Sunshine State.