‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws and the Trayvon Martin Case: Do you have a constitutional right to self-defense?
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
When George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., shot and killed 16-year-old Trayvon Martin in late February, he was not arrested, nor was he charged with a crime.
Police said Zimmerman was protected under a state statute known as the Stand Your Ground law, and a heated, nationwide debate ensued over whether they should have let Zimmerman go free when Martin – who, it turns out, was unarmed – lay dead.
Stand Your Ground was passed by Florida in 2005, and 23 other states – including Georgia, Montana, Michigan and Oregon – followed suit and adopted their own version of the measure. Endorsed by gun-rights advocates like the NRA, the Florida law says people who are attacked or feel their life is being threatened don’t have to retreat, but instead have the right to stand their ground “and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary.”
In the Florida shooting, Zimmerman was on patrol and made a 911 call to police after spotting Martin in his neighborhood, describing him as suspicious and possibly high on drugs. From this point, reports of what happened vary. Zimmerman may have followed Martin on his walk home, or Martin may have taken a swing at Zimmerman. While investigators continue to sort out what exactly happened that prompted Zimmerman to shoot Martin, the emotional outpouring has swelled: A story got out that Zimmerman’s reason for finding Martin suspicious was the fact that he was dressed in a hoodie, prompting a “million hoodie march” in New York. U.S. Rep. Bobbie Rush of Illinois took the floor in Congress wearing a hoodie in support of Martin.
Legal experts, such as Lyle Dennison, a National Constitution Center adviser on Constitutional Literacy, say the emotional element of the case is keeping people from considering the constitutionality of the Stand Your Ground law. Even though there is no right to self-defense specifically listed in the Constitution, Denniston calls the concept “ancient” and notes it was recognized by the Supreme Court in cases as recent as 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, which recognized a personal right to have a gun and use it for self-defense within one’s own home.
Fordham University law professor Nicholas J. Johnson also points to the Ninth Amendment of the Constitution, which acknowledges that people have rights other than those listed in the Bill of Rights, or the subsequent amendments to the Constitution.
A quick bit of history to explain what exactly that means: Some of the Founding Fathers wanted a Constitution that broadly mentioned fundamental rights. They felt that listing every single right we might have would be impossible, and listing just some of them could be dangerous, since it would suggest that the list was complete.
Others didn’t agree. They said that the Constitution needed to provide specific protections for the citizens. The Ninth Amendment was a compromise – it basically says that in addition to these rights we talked about in the other eight amendments, there are a whole bunch of other rights you have, too. Over time, the Supreme Court has found some of those “unenumerated rights” to be the right to travel, the right to privacy and the right to self-defense in one’s home.
Critics say that Stand Your Ground gives people carte blanche to act without restraint when it comes to use of force – and might even encourage it. They also say, looking specifically at Martin’s shooting, that a right to self-defense when faced with aggression does not protect Zimmerman if he was the aggressor. Police are continuing to investigate the case.
What do you think?
Do you have a constitutional right to self-defense? Do you think Stand Your Ground laws fall within that right? Or do they encourage you to exceed that right? Join the discussion!
Join the Discussion