The Trayvon Martin case prompted a political cartoon by R.J. Matson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A black guy holds a smoking gun pointed at a dispatched white guy, also holding a gun, lying under a neighborhood watch sign. The black guy says to a cop, “I had a reasonable fear the neighborhood watch guy following me was going to fear for his life and shoot … so I shot him first.” To which the cop replies, “Makes sense to me.”
Matson puts his finger on a fundamental flaw of the Stand Your Ground law, which the Martin case has exposed. When someone –- in this case, neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman -– can shoot an unarmed kid and escape charges by hiding behind the law, it allows any amateur with a weapon to be a de facto professional.
Sure, cops can and do make deadly mistakes in confrontations. They’re human after all, and it’s a regrettable, and fairly rare, consequence of dealing with dangerous types. They sometimes mistake the innocent for the guilty, but they have training and rules to follow, with potential consequences if they don’t.
Zimmerman had no training, no rules and until now, no consequences.
Stand Your Ground is only the latest example of our do-it-myself culture, with its increasing intolerance for imperfections in the cords of community that are supposed to bind us together. It’s an I’m-OK-You’re-Not-OK attitude that demands the reins of control, no matter the activity.
Your kid’s teacher gives him a D on a test? Obviously she’s incompetent, and you are certain you can do a better job home-schooling little Johnny. Don’t like your doctor’s recommendation to take two aspirin instead of the latest prescription sensation? How dare he ignore your Internet research? You fire him and shop for a doctor who will do your bidding.
Stand Your Ground is a big helping of a volatile stew of rugged individualist mythology, Second Amendment fanaticism and the narcissism that I know best how to take care of myself. What do you mean, call the police and wait? Not when I’ve got a trusty .45. I mean, how hard can it be to subdue a bad guy? He is a bad guy, right?
Unfortunately, our entertainment culture contributes to the conviction that we should seize the levers of justice from failing institutions. Every film about superheroes or invincibly resourceful mavericks who make up their own rules in the pursuit of right only reinforces the fantasy that we, too, can be Batman.
The danger of Stand Your Ground is that vigilantism is a very real prospect. Anyone with an offended sense of justice now has the means to carry out with impunity what he or she believes to be a balancing of the scales.
What is now to prevent someone in Martin’s family from confronting Zimmerman, skirmishing with him, shooting him, and then claiming the same right of self-defense? The Hatfields and the McCoys could have put Stand Your Ground to good use.
The remedy for Stand Your Ground, short of its repeal, is for state attorneys to not assume a claim of self-defense is an automatic exoneration of manslaughter. Based on the facts as we now know them, filing charges against George Zimmerman might give pause to all do-it-yourself cops.
Cary McMullen is a journalist and editor who lives in Lakeland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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