Yesteday, a jury in Sanford, Florida acquitted George Zimmerman, who had been charged with second-degree murder (with a lesser-included charge of mansluaghter) for shooting and killing the unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. That Zimmerman was not punished for kiling Martin is certainly disturbing. But it is disturbing for somewhat different reasons than much of the case's media coverage posits. The problem with the Zimmerman acquittal was not Florida's ill-conceived "stand your ground" law. The problem with the acquittal was not a racist and unreasonable jury, either. Rather, the acquittal of Zimmerman reflects something else equally serious and unsettling: the failure of the law in many states to keep up with the realities of America's gun culture. In a society in which many African-Americans are presumed to be criminals and large numbers of people carry concealed deadly weapons, some ways of defining self-defense (even if they do not entail a right to stand one's ground) may no longer be workable.
Although some media reports continue to assert that Florida's infamous "stand your ground" law was "central to Zimmerman’s defense" during the trial, the defendant's team didn't even invoke it; Zimmerman's defense involved just standard self-defense. Under Florida law, the fact that Zimmerman initiated the conflict with Martin did not foreclose a self-defense claim if Zimmeran "reasonably believe[d] that he...[wa]s in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he...has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant."
This was the basis for Zimmerman's defense, and under Florida law it was the state's burden to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. (Intuitively, this may seem like a quirk of Florida law, but the vast majority of states place the burden of proof on the state to disprove a claim of self-defense.)
Having not watched every second of the trial, I am not prepared to say that the jury got it right. But I do think that on its face the jury's verdict wasn't unreasonable. It is far from obvious that the prosecution (which was unable to even articulate a coherent narrative of the night's events to counter Zimmerman's) met its burden of disproving Zimmerman's claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. That it failed to reach a guilty verdict cannot be seen as evidence of white supremacy on the part of the jury.
To be clear, this doesn't mean that race didn't play a major role in the case. Trayvon Martin, guilty of nothing but walking on the street in a hoodie, was certainly killed because of racial profiling. And it is entirely possible that a trial of a poor African American killing a white man in similar circumstances would have played out differently (although the problem is not that the jury's acquittal of Zimmerman was unreasonable but that a poor African-American man would have been much less likely to receive a fair trial, particularly assuming he could not afford to hire his own counsel). It's easy to imagine a counterfactual case where a mostly white jury would have been less willing to credit a plausible self-defense claim if it came from an young African American man than a white man. To argue that the jury's verdict wasn't obviously wrong as a matter of law is not to argue that persistent racial inequities aren't relevant to the case in a number of ways.
But it is important not to lose sight of something else: the inadequacy of the law in most states to deal with America's gun culture. Carrying a deadly weapon in public should carry unique responsibilities. In most cases someone with a gun should not be able to escape culpability if he initiates a conflict with someone unarmed and the other party ends up getting shot and killed. Under the current law in many states, people threatened by armed people have few good options, because fighting back might create a license to kill. As the New Yorker's Amy Davidson puts it, "I still don't understand what Trayvon was supposed to do." Unless the law is changed to deal with the large number of people carrying concealed guns, there will be more tragic and unnecessary deaths of innocent people like Trayvon Martin for which nobody is legally culpable. And to make claims of self-defense easier to bring, as Florida and more than 20 other states have done, is moving in precisely the wrong direction. And, even more importantly, no matter how self-defense laws are structured the extremely unusual American practice of allowing large number of citizens to carry concealed weapons leads to many unecessary deaths. (All 50 states, it's worth noting, permit concealed carry.) Cases like the killing of Martin should compel reconsideration of the lack of significant gun control in the United States, but for whatever reason this isn't the lesson that most legislators are likely to draw.