August 5, 2013
President Obama
President Obama talks about Trayvon Martin and “stand your ground” laws. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

There is nothing surprising about the stark divisions revealed in the new Quinnipiac University poll showing 53 percent support for “Stand your ground” (SYG) laws. White voters support them (57 percent). Republican and independent voters support them (75 percent and 57 percent, respectively). Democrats don’t (62 percent). Women don’t (47 percent). African Americans most certainly do not (57 percent). And these divisions will likely keep these insane laws in place.

The poll, released Friday, comes three weeks after George Zimmerman, the killer of Trayvon Martin, was found not guilty of second-degree murder for shooting the unarmed black teenager last year in Sanford, Fla. The reaction to the verdict was as stark as these survey numbers, with African Americans most disappointed by the outcome. A disappointment eloquently expressed by President Obama last month. Even though the Zimmerman defense team didn’t opt for a SYG hearing, which would have given a judge the power to grant the former neighborhood watch volunteer immunity from prosecution, the strictures of the law were part of the jury instructions.

Florida statute 776.013(3) says: “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

According to the jury instructions read by Judge Debra Nelson, “If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

Notice how the SYG law and the jury instructions for a case that didn’t invoke it are nearly identical? That’s because, as Marc Caputo of the Miami Herald wrote last month, “Stand Your Ground is standard self defense in Florida.” Kendall Coffey, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, has called the SYG law a “license to kill.” For many people, especially black people, Zimmerman’s acquittal was proof of this.

The president called for a reexamination of SYG laws in the wake of the verdict. So, too, did Attorney General Eric Holder. But they are federal officials who hold no sway over local laws. All they can do is pound their respective bully pulpits to buck up the courage of those demanding changes to SYG laws. That the Republican speaker of the Florida House of Representatives has called for hearings this fall on the law is a hopeful sign. “Does the law keep the innocent safer? Is it being applied fairly? Are there ways we can make this law clearer and more understandable?” Speaker Will Weatherford wrote in an op-ed for the Tampa Tribune last week. “These are appropriate questions that should be asked and answered.” This examination will come after a task force convened by Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) in the wake of the Trayvon killing issued a report in February that concluded the state’s SYG law didn’t need major changes.

“‘Stand Your Ground’ splits the country sharply along political, gender and racial lines,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in a statement. “With these kinds of numbers, it’s unlikely the movement to repeal ‘Stand Your Ground’ will be successful in most of the country.” Unlikely, as in the prospects of successfully jumping from the first floor to the roof in a single bound. But that is certainly no excuse for not trying.

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