The nationwide protests over the senseless shooting of high school student Trayvon Martin by a town-watch volunteer nearly seven weeks ago have been rewarded, finally, with decisive action by Florida authorities.
In deciding Wednesday to file second-degree murder charges against George Zimmerman, 28, a special prosecutor all but assured that there will be a greater measure of justice for the family of the 17-year-old Martin, who was killed in a gated community north of Orlando.
Zimmerman will be arraigned in late May, but his arrest brings to a close weeks of uncertainty and escalating public tension over an incident that raised the specter of racial profiling. At heavily attended marches in major cities, including Philadelphia, people donned hoodies and brandished Skittles — the garb Martin wore, and the snack he was carrying, when he was shot.
It was heartening to see these acts of solidarity with the slain teen, as well as with other black youths in urban areas, who too often are treated with suspicion solely due to their appearance. As the undoubtedly sensational legal case unfolds, however, it will have even broader implications than seeking to affix blame for the teenager’s death.
That’s because Zimmerman has tried to shield himself behind Florida’s permissive self-defense law, similar to those passed in recent years under intense pressure from the National Rifle Association in nearly two dozen states, including Pennsylvania. These laws extend citizens’ traditional right to defend themselves with a gun or other lethal force beyond the home, freeing them from any obligation to retreat from a confrontation even when that makes the most sense.
Following the Feb. 26 confrontation in the town of Sanford that left the unarmed high-schooler dead, it wasn’t clear that anyone would answer for the shooting because of the misguided self-defense statute. Local police seemed to buy into Zimmerman’s claim that he had the right to “stand his ground,” in the argot of these self-defense laws.
Now the courts will evaluate what sounded like a preposterous story, that Zimmerman had to use his weapon against an unprovoked attack by the teen, who was carrying only the soft drink and candy he’d just bought at a convenience store near his father’s home. Though the self-appointed watchman Zimmerman had been told by police in calls to 911 that he shouldn’t approach Martin, a confrontation ensued. Video images have since called into question injuries Zimmerman said he suffered at Martin’s hands.
A conviction for Zimmerman may go beyond determining his future, which could include a 25-year minimum sentence for using a gun in such a crime. It also could pass a harsh judgment on the irresponsible expansion of self-defense laws.
Licensed-to-carry handgun owners need to realize that these so-called castle-doctrine or stand-your-ground laws, despite all the nonsense spouted by the NRA, don’t give them legal cover to settle scores with deadly force. Once that happens, maybe Harrisburg lawmakers will respond by repealing this state’s similar law, which only puts more lives at risk.