Editorial: ‘Stand Your Ground’ law should be repealed

Last modified: 7/18/2013 12:23:18 AM
In the days since George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin, many Americans have no doubt had the same confounding reaction: It is somehow possible to hold two contradictory opinions about this case in your head simultaneously.

First, given the murky and conflicting evidence, the lack of eyewitnesses and the weak performance by at least one critical state witness, it’s not impossible to understand how jurors found reasonable doubt about the prosecutors’ case against Zimmerman.

Second, a kid on his way back from the store armed with only iced tea and Skittles was shot to death, and no one will be held accountable. How can that possibly be? How can the justice system create a verdict that feels so far from just?

The case has forced an uncomfortable national dialogue about the racism that exists even still in the United States. When Zimmerman told a 911 dispatcher on the night of the shooting, “These a--holes, they always get away” (together with an even harsher expletive), he was surely referring to young, African-American men – casting them as different from himself, revealing an us-versus-them mind-set that poisons daily life and, as it turns out, can be lethal. Curing ourselves of such racism is an effort 300 years in the making. But while progress on this front can seem achingly slow, there is one concrete effort that might just make such episodes less frequent: a renewed push to rethink gun laws that make it easier to kill.

Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute played a tragic role in this case. That law – like similar statutes across the country, including in New Hampshire – allows a person who believes his life or safety is in danger to use deadly force in self-defense without being required to retreat, not only in his own home but also anywhere he has a legal right to be. In the Zimmerman trial, jurors were told specifically that “If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and use deadly force.”

Such laws encourage Americans in nearly two dozen states to introduce deadly force into situations where it doesn’t belong. They escalate confrontations rather than defuse them and make a violent outcome more likely. They decrease public safety and increase homicide rates. In Florida, where Stand Your Ground has been the law since 2005, homicides are up dramatically, and the law has been cited as a defense in an increasing number of incidents, including shootouts between rival gang members.

New Hampshire enacted its “Stand Your Ground” law during a national campaign by the National Rifle Association and the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council to persuade states to adopt such legislation. The Legislature did so over the strong objections of law enforcement, including the association that represents the state’s chiefs of police, and then-Gov. John Lynch’s veto. This year, an attempt to repeal it was unsuccessful.

Penacook Rep. Steve Shurtleff was the sponsor of that effort, and he should keep at it. New Hampshire’s law should be repealed before someone here is killed by a gunman intent on standing his ground when he could instead walk away from a fight. Many Americans have concluded that it was Zimmerman, not Martin who “got away,” despite what the gunman said before the shooting. Making that less likely in the future is a cause we must all embrace.


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