Politics & Policy

The Media’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Excuse

They’re inventing reasons to blame the verdict on Florida’s gun laws.

Since the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, countless journalists and pundits have attempted to blame Florida’s laws for the outcome. All of these references seem to share a misunderstanding of those laws and the relevant facts. Slate’s Emily Bazelon claimed that people should “blame the state’s bad laws for Trayvon Martin’s death.” An even better example is the Washington Post’s Wonkbook:

Florida’s gun laws, for instance, makes cases like this one likely and even inevitable. Would Zimmerman have left his car and followed Martin without the comfort of the cold steel strapped to his body? It’s unlikely. But Florida’s laws are such that the kind of people who want to get out of their car and tail teenagers who scare them can carry guns when they do it, and Florida’s laws are such that if there’s then a confrontation and the gun goes off, the person holding the gun is very likely to walk free.

As with other articles making these claims, the references are very general and not actually supported by evidence. Wonkbook’s first reference to Florida’s laws pertains to concealed-carry legislation. All 50 states have passed laws allowing some form of concealed carry. Furthermore, firearm violence in Florida recently hit an all-time low, even while the state has issued significantly more concealed-carry permits than any other state. We can disagree about causality, but there is zero statistical evidence to support the claim that gun violence is more common because of such laws.

Wonkbook’s second reference to Florida’s laws is clearly referring to the state’s self-defense statute, §776.013(3). Countless members of the media, including the New York Times editorial board, have incorrectly claimed that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was responsible for Zimmerman’s acquittal. However, as Reason’s Jacob Sullum pointed out, this law actually had no impact on the case. Zimmerman’s defense invoked only the regular self-defense portions of the statute listed above, which is very similar to the self-defense requirements of almost every other state. In other words, if this case had been tried elsewhere and the jury considered similar factual findings, the outcome would probably have been the same.

There is one legal concept that many of the media critics seem to be taking issue with: the requirement that the prosecution prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This requirement, of course, is in no way limited to Florida’s laws. The American legal system adopted that standard based on the assumption that it is better that a guilty person go free than an innocent one go to jail. These journalists are free to argue that this standard, which has been central to our criminal-justice system since at least 1798, should be changed in the aftermath of one outcome they do not support. But rejecting this standard should not be confused with exposing a deficiency in Florida’s laws.

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