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Stand Your Ground on Stand Your Ground
Such statutes don’t put anyone at risk, and rest on sound legal principles.

George Zimmerman

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Yet to “master the finer points” of self-defense law is to watch this critique crumble and fall. “Any intelligent and self-interested observer” who wished to kill with impunity in pretty much any American state would have his work cut out. In almost every state, if and when an individual enters into an altercation with the deliberate intention of provoking the other party into threatening him with death or injury, they lose the right to claim that they were acting in self-defense. Pretty much every Stand Your Ground system thus takes into account the motivations of someone who might look for an excuse to start a potentially lethal fight, or even of someone who is likely to provoke another as the byproduct of latent racial animosity.

This includes Florida, which per the Huffington Post’s Professor Alafair Burke,

follows traditional self-defense limitations by prohibiting “initial aggressors” from using force provoked by their own conduct. A defendant in Florida cannot claim self-defense if he “initially provokes the use of force” against himself . . . 

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The second, and arguably more important, problem with critics’ conjecture is that what they claim might happen, well, just doesn’t. There is no question in my mind that in a system that honors the rule of law, presumption of innocence, and reasonable doubt, George Zimmerman should not have been found guilty. But I dissent somewhat from many of his apologists in that I do think that the defendant acted stupidly. A neighborhood “watchman” is not the same thing as a neighborhood cop, and at least from what we can know there was no clear-cut reason for Zimmerman to take it upon himself to make the transition from one to the other. To draw on Florida’s own legal language, at no point was Zimmerman compelled to get out of his car in order to “prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” Whatever his legal liability, Zimmerman’s choices created a situation that led to the death of another man. That much is indisputable.

This behavior, however, had pretty much nothing to do with the principle behind Stand Your Ground. In no reasonable universe can George Zimmerman be painted as a Dexter-esque vigilante, and attempts to cast him as an example of what “might happen” under such laws smack of political exploitation. Indeed, it is telling that such charges emanate primarily from those who objected to broad self-defense laws and permissive gun laws long before anybody knew Trayvon Martin’s name. And telling, too, that they are struggling to find other poster children for a problem that their rhetoric implies is widespread.

The related claim that, by acquitting George Zimmerman of the charges brought against him, Florida has established a license for non-blacks to go around summarily executing blacks on the slightest pretext is downright unhinged — according to the Tampa Bay Times, it is black Floridians that have disproportionately relied on the defense in court — as is the idea that many Americans would wish to take advantage of such a provision. It seems that the presumed consequences of Stand Your Ground, as peddled widely this week by race-baiters and armchair legal experts alike, are as off the mark as the discredited conjecture that widespread concealed-carry permissions would lead to Americans shooting one another over petty disputes in the grocery store.

Inextricable from the unalienable rights to life and liberty that serve as the bedrock of our republic is the corollary right of self-defense. Far from being the invitation to anarchy that some have insinuated it is, Stand Your Ground” is a legal principle that recognizes those rights, and attempts to tilt the balance in favor of the attacked. It serves, if you will, to remove the heckler’s punch from dominating the public square.

When tragedy hits, it is tempting to look for simple causes and call for hasty legislation as a panacea for all the world’s ills. But this is rarely wise. Contrary to the wailing of the partisans on both sides, in the case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin there were no winners — there are only losers. There is no compelling reason to add a sound legal principle to the casualty list.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.



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