Trayvon Martin was shot and killed two years ago today while walking back from a convenience store carrying skittles and an iced tea, but no gun. When police initially declined to even arrest shooter George Zimmerman because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, they shed national spotlight on the expansive National Rifle Association and American Legislative Exchange Council-backed law that removes any duty to attempt retreat before using deadly force in purported self-defense. After a national outcry, police charged Zimmerman 44 days later. But in the two years since, Zimmerman and many other shooters have gotten off without a single blip in their record, thanks at least in part to the aggressive self-defense laws that have proliferated around the nation.
After Zimmerman was acquitted, President Barack Obama remarked in a powerful address on the state of race in America that “Trayvon could have been me 35 years ago” and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declared that it’s time to question Stand Your Ground laws. But the state of the law has remained largely the same, while a racially charged culture of vigilantism seems if anything to be gaining ground.
Here are five shocking facts about the state of self-defense in America:
1. Courts have granted immunity to a man who went back to his car to get a gun, and another who shot an acquaintance for threatening to beat him up. The Stand Your Ground law has now been infused into the self-defense jurisprudence in Florida and elsewhere, and comes into play in countless trials. But those who avail themselves of the law’s most expansive protection may be granted immunity by a judge before trial even begins, or may not even be charged at all. Just last week, officers in Arizona opted not to charge a man who shot dead a fellow patron at a Wal-Mart after an argument he said he was losing. In the past few months alone, Florida judges granted immunity to a man who shot dead two 24-year-olds after he went back to his car to get his gun, and another who shot dead a mentally ill acquaintance who he says threatened to beat him up. Even when cases go before a jury, both the defense lawyer and jury instructions frequently advise jurors to consider the law, as was the case when a panel deadlocked on the charge of first degree murder for Michael Dunn.
2. In Florida alone, 26 children and teens were killed in Stand Your Ground cases. Martin and Jordan Davis were two of 26 children and teens killed in Florida Stand Your Ground cases, according to a Tampa Bay Times breakdown by age and race. The law was unsuccessfully invoked in the shooting of a child as young as 9 years old. It has played a role in at least 134 fatal cases, affecting the calculus of law enforcement on an arrest, factoring in jury decisions, or granting defendants immunity from trial. And these figures are likely an understatement of its impact; even when it is not directly cited in a legal defense, it promotes vigilantism because a person who could reasonably retreat to safety has no duty to under the law.
3. Florida and Georgia are considering an expansion of Stand Your Ground laws. At least 24 states have Stand Your Ground-like laws. Despite their notoriety, Ohio advanced a bill to pass its own law, and Alaska joined the list when Gov. Sean Parnell (R) signed the bill into law at a shooting range. Now, Florida and Georgia are now considering expansions of their existing statutes. After a Florida repeal effort failed last year, the legislature instead began considering an NRA-backed bill expands immunity to those who point a gun at an attacker or fire a gun as a self-defense threat or warning. The sweeping bill removes all legal liability for anyone who successfully use the defense, and is vague on the circumstances in which it can be applied. While the Georgia Senate has also pushed a repeal of Stand Your Ground, the House considered its own expansion of its existing law that would allow individuals to invoke the defense for shootings on public transportation. Despite efforts in several states, none has successfully repealed a Stand Your Ground law.
4. White-on-black homicides are 354 percent more likely to be ruled justified than white-on-white. A field of research confirms the racial bias that comes into play when juries and judges consider Stand Your Ground defenses. According to the Urban Institute, in Stand Your Ground states, white-on-black homicides are 354 percent more likely to be ruled justified than white-on-white homicides. In cases with black or Hispanic victims, the killings were found justified by the Stand Your Ground law 78 percent of the time, compared to 56 percent in cases with white victims. Without looking specifically at Stand Your Ground, another report from the Congressional Research Service on inter-racial shootings nationwide found disparity at work in which inter-racial shootings were ruled justified. In its first major investigation in decades, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission is now assessing the role race plays in Stand Your Ground laws.
5. Shooters who successfully invoke Stand Your Ground get their guns back. This week, a man who gained immunity after he fatally shot a friend had his guns returned as required by Florida law, even though the judge who granted his request thought it was a bad idea. This principle has also allowed Zimmerman to hold onto his guns, even after several run-ins of the law. Since his trial, Zimmerman has been accused of multiple standoffs involving his gun, twice facing brief charges of threatening his ex-wife and former girlfriend with a weapon. But once the charges were dropped, he could reclaim his small arsenal of assault rifles and handguns.