In Florida, the case of Trayvon Martin-a teenager who died from a gunshot during a confrontation whose details are still unclear-has brought to the forefront the use of racial profiling to the extreme. It is tragic that the mere presence of an African-American teen walking at night is seen as a threat. But it’s even worse when legally, this mistaken perception is enough to justify a murder.
What happened speaks of racism in our society, which is reflected in irrational fear. Combined with permissive gun possession and usage laws, this combination produced tragic results.
Public outrage about the fact that the one who fired the shot, George Zimmerman, was not arrested, is justified. However, the problem is not about racist police covering up for alleged white murderers, but a law in effect that allows Zimmerman to say he acted in self-defense and basically get off scot-free.
In 2005, thanks to the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) lobbying efforts, Florida approved a law that modified the time-honored duty for individuals to retreat in cases of confrontation and now allows people to “stand their ground.” To do this, for example, someone must “reasonably believe” that by shooting they are protecting themselves from another person who is perceived as a threat.
As a result of this law, justifiable homicide cases tripled in Florida. In 2004, 31 cases of this type were reported, while in 2009 there were 105. Legislation intended to protect individuals from crime has degenerated into permission to shoot first and ask questions later. Arguments with neighbors, everyday fights and even gang shootouts that end in death have already been justified under the law. A minority of those cases end with someone being arrested, prosecuted and convicted.
The worst part is that this type of law is quickly taking over the country with pressure from the NRA. Now 24 states have these laws, which combined with permissive gun carry laws, are turning their streets into scenes from the Old West.
It’s essential to establish the facts and responsibilities in Trayvon Martin’s case. He deserves justice. But popular outrage about his murder should also make the Florida Legislature change the law. Lawmakers are responsible for setting the rules of the game, like those that gave Zimmerman the confidence to use a firearm. If this happens, Martin’s tragic death will not be in vain.