In February 2012, teenager Trayvon Martin was shot dead by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. Last month, Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder and freed.
The circumstances of the shooting caused an uproar. Martin was an unarmed 17-year-old black youth who was shot by Zimmerman, a 28-year-old mixed-race Hispanic who was a neighborhood watch coordinator, after Zimmerman believed him to be acting suspiciously. After calling the police, who advised Zimmerman to wait until officers arrived, he and Martin got into a scuffle and the latter was killed.
Florida has a "stand your ground" law, which allows the use of force if a person fears they will be killed or badly injured. Most states have self-defense laws, but the Florida "stand your ground" law is different in that the person under threat does not have to retreat or warn their attacker before using deadly force.
Q: Although Zimmerman's defense team didn't use the "stand your ground" law at the trial, what's your take on these laws? Are they reasonable or is there a possibility that they'll lead to more such deaths?
In Scripture God distinguishes between murder (when one person intentionally kills another) and manslaughter (unintentional killing). Killing in the course of national warfare is treated separately from the issue of one person killing another and is justified — when the warfare is just.
When a murderer has been justly tried and convicted, Scripture calls for the death penalty. The justification for this is given in Genesis 9:6: "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man." Even when the killing was proven to be manslaughter and not murder there were consequences. The manslayer was forced to move to one of six cities of refuge until the death of the current high priest.
In Scripture the heart of the issue is intention. I believe this should apply to circumstances of killing today and should inform cases involving the "stand your ground" principle. If the death of the attacker was accidental, there should be no punishment. The attacker instigated the violence and the victim had to defend himself. However, if the death of the attacker was intentional and avoidable, then the victim murdered him. "Stand your ground" laws rightly allow a person to defend himself, but without restraint they can possibly cause deaths that could have been avoided.
Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
The Latter-day Saints church has no official position on "stand your ground" laws. We do believe, generally, that individuals have a right to defend their lives and the lives of loved ones "in times of exigency, where immediate appeal cannot be made to the laws, and relief afforded." In other words, we believe forceful self-defense is justified when there truly is no alternative.
It is noteworthy that even during periods of violent persecution of church members during the 1830s and 1840s, members were admonished to refrain from retaliation and most, though not all, followed this council. In some cases, members forfeited the ability to defend themselves by surrendering their weapons to local militias. So, while we believe there is a right to self-defense, it cannot be taken lightly. We place ourselves in moral jeopardy if we use it as an excuse to justify revenge or to resolve a dispute.
My primary concern about "stand your ground" statutes is that they may make it easier for some to falsely claim self-defense. I don't foresee a wholesale repeal of these statutes. However, I believe that, even though the Zimmerman's defense wasn't based a "stand your ground" law, the case will make prosecutors, judges and juries look more closely at such claims.
To me, it simply makes sense to avoid violent confrontation whenever possible. The Martin case supports the point. After reporting what he viewed as suspicious activity, Zimmerman was told by a police dispatcher to stay in his car. As a neighborhood watch captain, his job was done. Had he followed the dispatcher's instructions Martin would be alive and Zimmerman be leading a normal life. Instead, the tragic confrontation left a young man dead and another person's life in shambles. It helped no one.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
They'll probably lead to more such deaths. However, there is a deeper problem here, and I think the problem is fear. Also, that fear may have racism at its base. For some white folks, nothing is more scary than a young black man, and I'm willing to bet that white Florida legislators pushed through that "stand your ground" law. The law is blind, supposedly, and black people can benefit from a "stand your ground" law, too.
I recently heard of an upstate New York case in which the white person was killed by a black person who was "standing his ground." Still, more often than not, the African American community will feel victimized by such laws.
Most of us like to think that the civil rights era is over, and most of us would prefer not to think about racism still being around. But the sad truth is that racism is alive and well, and, I am sorry to say, even built into some of our laws. The "stand your ground" laws weren't meant to be racist, but down deep a lot of us are afraid, and when we're afraid, we're capable of doing some terrible things. When 9/11 happened, some of us were suspicious of all Muslims, just as when Pearl Harbor happened, some of us were suspicious of all Japanese.
I would love it if Trayvon Martin's death were the last of its kind, but with "stand your ground" laws in force, I fear there will be more.
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
Many believe that "stand your ground" law is based on the right to defend one's house or castle. In that instance, there is no retribution for defending your home against intruders who might be trying to break into your dwelling to rob or harm you. Scripture has instances of windows and doors being locked and windows pinned against unwelcome intruders.
For some people, and in some jurisdictions, "stand your ground law" has come to mean that you have the right, without fear of consequence, to prevail in any confrontation in which you find yourself. Therefore you will always win if you bring a gun to a knife fight, or to a Skittles confrontation. It doesn't matter if you, tired of your neighborhood being overrun with those who don't look to you to be of the right sort, and you, after repeated, documented calls to the authorities, decide to take matters into your own hands go out in pursuit with an armed weapon. Some might think that, on behalf of the community, you are "standing your ground."
It doesn't matter if authorities are telling you to steer clear of a specific situation and you choose not to heed their advice. If you find yourself overwhelmed when perhaps your intention was only to threaten, or bully, you can claim that your frightened teenage opponent overreacted and was using the sidewalk to subdue you, and so you had the right to kill the teenager, because you were "standing your ground," ground that the authorities advised you in the first place not to traverse.
If "stand your ground" is extended to include this kind of impulse and action, streets are nothing but backdrops for any vigilante action based on any whim that enters the mind. "Stand your ground" law, if it stands, must be clearly defined to mean the protection of one's home from imminent intrusion. If it does not mean that and only that, we are even more unsafe in this oh, so violent country. God please bless and protect our children; God please bless and protect us all.
The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel
Most people will never get into a physical fight. But if you ever do, let me tell you that it can mean your life in these days. People will beat you to death if it suits them to punish you for looking at them incorrectly or for interfering with whatever illegality they wish to pursue undisturbed. Maybe they don't intend to murder you, but after kicking you in the head 20 times with their steel-toed boots, you succumb. "You deserved it anyway, stupid do-gooder!" they think to themselves. And your assailant walks scot-free to live the perpetual life of a parasite and victimizer.
I think it very Pollyanna to believe that saying "Please stop or I'll be forced to thrash you," will have any effect on a person that will be in your face and on top of you before you finish the fair warning. No cop would even countenance such a thing, although anyone within "reasonable" distance should be warned of immediate death if they advance further. Not stopping? Start shooting. Better the defender survive than the perpetrator, every time!
If what defenders say went down in the Zimmerman-Martin case is true, a fully armed security man observed a stranger in a hoody, lurking about in a gated, previously burglarized, community. Isn't that what neighborhood watch is about, watching for house intruders? When the stranger, no matter his race, turned on the guard, what should we have expected to happen? If the guard had been a badged cop, this would have been viewed as assault on a police officer, and the justified shooting would have never been questioned. So, should good citizens just stand-down and passively die? No, "stand your ground."
Jesus said, "When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe."
The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
There were numerous victims in the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., on the night of Feb. 26, 2012. Certainly the young man who died was, and is, the primary one. But others included his family and friends; the people in the gated community in Sanford, where the tragedy took place; the African Americans throughout our country who saw this action as one more example of prejudice leading to violent injustice; and the many in the United States who may never feel truly safe again.
There were also many, in addition to George Zimmerman, who should have been on trial for the killing. Whether Zimmerman was a racist or not, there is a strain of racism that has run through the United States from our earliest history in the days of slavery, through the civil rights era, to the present. Unconsciously or not, most of us in the majority culture have at least some amount of racial prejudice in our background or current beliefs — even though we don't want to acknowledge it. Zimmerman pulled the trigger, but he had a lot of support to experience fear in the presence of a young, black male in "his" neighborhood.
And the "stand your ground" law in Florida that condones the use of lethal force by someone who feels threatened must have given Zimmerman the feeling that he should continue his pursuit of Martin even when the policeman on the phone told him to wait for help to arrive.
I believe that, as people of faith, we must get rid of laws and beliefs that encourage people to act from their worst selves. And in a country that is becoming more and more multiethnic and multiracial, we must find better ways to practice justice, equity, and compassion for all people. That is my hope for us.
The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
"Stand your ground" laws have been passed in more than 30 states since 2005. My understanding is that they expand the "castle doctrine" laws that allow a person to use deadly force in self-defense if their property or home is being invaded. "Stand your ground" laws extend this rationale to a person outside of their home and property.
While in theory this may seem reasonable, the language of these laws is vague and difficult to legally clarify. Under preexisting self-defense laws, a person had to demonstrate an attempt to retreat from perceived danger as well as the reality of imminent danger or death from the aggressor. Under "stand your ground" laws, the person using deadly force has no greater burden of proof than that they "felt threatened," and no duty to retreat from danger is required.
I think the "stand your ground" laws need to be revisited and the terminology legally clarified. As they exist now, they are worded too loosely and I am concerned they will lead to more unnecessary deaths. In a column for the Washington Post on July 15, 2013, journalist Chris Cillinga noted that in the five years following Florida's passage of the "stand your ground" law, the rate of justifiable homicides has tripled.
These laws have rapidly gained the nicknames of "kill at will," and "make my day" legislation. Human life is sacred to God. He does make allowances for killing in justifiable self-defense, but he strictly forbids the shedding of innocent blood. Under the "stand your ground" laws it is too easy to take an innocent human life. I think this is already happening. In an interesting contrast to the Trayvon Martin case, CBS news reported on Aug. 7 that a 17-year-old will not be prosecuted in the shooting death of a 40-year-old based on Florida's "stand your ground" law.
Pastor Ché Ahn
To me "stand your ground" laws are a dangerous manifestation of an aggressive mind-set which in this case led to the unnecessary death of a slight, unarmed 17-year old, minding his own business in the neighborhood where he lived. I am afraid that more deaths will follow, especially given that Zimmerman has not yet been held in any way accountable.
Adding law to the fields like theology that I dabble in without a license, to me it doesn't seem reasonable that one can claim feeling threatened yet not be required to take available steps to avoid that alleged threat. Tell me why under "stand your ground" we can't blow someone, anyone, away and just say we were "feeling afraid?"
His defense could not have invoked "stand your ground," even Florida's loosey-goosey version, with a straight face — Zimmerman was the initial and persistent aggressor in the incident.
I don't buy that Zimmerman feared being killed or badly injured. If so, why was he actively pursuing Martin? That doesn't seem like frightened behavior to me.
It is ironic that the weak and irresponsible gun control laws in states like Florida enable the excess firepower, volume and lethality of guns on the streets, which I believe cause a lot of quite justified fear. We don't allow such unregulated use of other powerful, potentially harmful, items like automobiles, alcohol or cigarettes.
Self-defense is an important right too but I don't think that means trigger-happy, self-appointed, not particularly effective, so-called guardians of our streets should be allowed to reign violently over the rest of us. In this case the official voice of law and order told Zimmerman to back off.
I accept the justice system's verdict that Zimmerman is not guilty of second degree murder, but I believe he is guilty of something. He bears moral responsibility as the instigator and prime mover of events leading to the death of Trayvon Martin.