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Perspectives: Stand your ground laws: A license to kill

MARC H. MORIAL | 10/12/2015, 7:08 a.m.
Racial stereotypes are still part of American culture, and, by default, part of the American criminal justice system. Instead of ...

National Urban League

“Racial stereotypes are still part of American culture, and, by default, part of the American criminal justice system. Instead of being color-blind, an impossible exercise, the impact of race must be addressed head-on and become openly part of the legal critique. It must be discussed where necessary to amend laws that enable race, or the fear of race, to be a guise to harm the disfavored race. This is our task if we choose to accept it.” – Professor Tamara Lawson, A Fresh Cut in an Old Wound – A Critical Analysis of the Trayvon Martin Killing, August 2012

Trayvon Martin’s unjust death at the hands of a trigger-happy, self-described neighborhood watchman continues to shock and live on in our nation’s collective consciousness. And with the release of a recent study commissioned by the American Bar Association, it may also become the impetus behind the movement to abolish or scale back stand your ground protections – protections that influenced the ultimate acquittal of Martin’s murderer and focused our attention on the dangerous confluence of race and criminal justice in America. On the evening of Feb. 26, 2012, Martin became a tragic illustration of the glaring defects in Florida’s stand your ground law. The 17-year-old, with no criminal record, was walking home from a store armed only with a bag of candy and a can of iced tea when he was confronted and then shot to death by George Zimmerman. Because of Florida’s stand your ground law, Zimmerman was taken in for questioning but was later released on the grounds of self-defense. He would not be charged with murder by the police – that night.

According to the law, which Florida became the first state to adopt in 2005, people are authorized to use deadly force in cases of self-defense without the duty to retreat in the face of any perceived threat to their life or property. As long as you can claim that you are in fear for your life at any given point, the law hands you a license to kill at will. Rather than lower homicide or crime rates, this essentially free pass to criminal behavior has only served to further endanger public safety – particularly the lives of people of color – and exploit the mistrust, animosity and racial injustice that color our daily interactions and justice at every level.

Martin’s murder served as the genesis of the ABA’s National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws. The task force has researched the impact of stand your ground laws in the 33 states that carry some variation of the law, and their discoveries should give pause to all Americans committed to fair and balanced treatment within our criminal justice system.

Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.