Florida has some of the strongest laws pertaining to armed self-defense in the United States. Not only did the state begin the trend of “shall issue” concealed-carry laws in the late 1980s, but it more recently enacted a “Stand Your Ground” statute, meaning that when a person faces a threat of death or great bodily harm in a public place, he has no duty to retreat from his attacker before using lethal force in self-defense.
However, a commitment to armed self-defense requires a second commitment: to the principle that those who bear arms must act responsibly. It is still not clear whether Florida “neighborhood watch” vigilante George Zimmerman broke the law when he chased down and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. And that’s a problem, because Zimmerman acted inappropriately in the moments leading up to the shooting, and Martin would still be alive if Zimmerman had behaved as he should have. Supporters of pro-self-defense policies should roundly condemn Zimmerman’s actions, and Florida should change its laws to prevent this incident from repeating itself.
The 28-year-old Zimmerman is a classic cop wannabe: Loving the thought of himself as a police officer, and witnessing a spate of break-ins in his neighborhood, he decided to patrol the streets in his SUV — carrying a gun (as he was licensed to do) and calling the cops 46 times over the course of a decade to report “suspicious” activity. On the night of February 26, a black teenager happened to catch Zimmerman’s eagle eye.
At the outset of his call to the police, Zimmerman reports that Martin “looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs, or something — it’s raining, and he’s just walking around, looking about.” Martin looks around at the houses, then starts staring back at Zimmerman, and finally walks toward Zimmerman with his “hands on his waistband” to “check me out.”
A car door opens, and Zimmerman says, “These a******s always get away.” Zimmerman gives the operator directions to the scene — presumably while he starts to follow Martin, because Martin runs. As Zimmerman can be heard huffing and puffing, the operator asks if he’s giving chase, and Zimmerman replies in the affirmative. “Okay, we don’t need you to do that,” the operator says. Zimmerman says “Okay,” but keeps running anyhow.
What happened when Zimmerman caught up with Martin isn’t entirely clear. Zimmerman told police that Martin jumped him from behind. Martin’s girlfriend, who was on the phone with him while he was running, says that Martin asked “Why are you following me?”; Zimmerman replied “What are you doing here?”; and then a scuffle ensued. We do know that there was some sort of wrestling match, and that Martin landed some blows — Zimmerman was found with a bloody nose, grass stains on his shirt, and a wound on the back of his head. Toward the end of the fight a man was heard yelling, “Help! Help!” Zimmerman fired a single shot, and the screaming stopped.
Zimmerman’s full account of what happened is not yet public, the neighbors didn’t see very much, and while the yelling of “Help!” is captured on a 9-1-1 tape, there has not yet been an audio analysis proving whether it was from Zimmerman or Martin. The confrontation could have unfolded in any of a million different ways.