My Ethics: 'Stand your ground' laws are invitation to kill
The author says Florida legislators who supported the state's "stand your ground" law are responsible for Trayvon Martin's killing.
March 28th, 2012
02:53 PM ET

My Ethics: 'Stand your ground' laws are invitation to kill

Editor’s note: Edward L. Queen II directs the D. Abbot Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership at Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

By Edward L. Queen II, Special to CNN

(CNN) - The true architects of the Trayvon Martin killing not only will not go unpunished, they also will go unnamed.

Those who created the conditions for Martin’s killing - those who, one might say, invited it - were the Florida legislators who voted for a law that undid not only decades of positive law regarding self-defense but also centuries of legal tradition.

In promoting “stand your ground” laws, self-proclaimed conservatives become grossly irresponsible radicals, drastically and dramatically undoing centuries of accumulated wisdom in their evisceration of the traditional formulation of self-defense.

They rip apart the traditional understanding of the legitimate use of deadly force in self-defense and invite people to kill.

Traditionally, the law understood deadly force to be justified in self-protection only when an individual reasonably believed that its use was necessary to prevent imminent and unlawful use of deadly force by the aggressor. Much of the tradition also argued that deadly force, outside of one’s immediate home, was not justified if a nondeadly response, such as retreating to a safe place, would suffice.

In adopting its "stand your ground" law in 2005 (officially Title XLVI, Chapter 776.013) the Florida Legislature, along with 20 other states with similar laws, both expanded the understanding of when deadly force is acceptable and eliminated the duty to retreat.

Florida’s law in particular remade the very nature of self-defense, turning what had been an “affirmative defense” into a presumption of innocence.

Before the passage of these “stand your ground laws,” most jurisdictions in the United States required one to demonstrate that one was acting in self-defense, that one had been attacked, that one reasonably feared for one’s life and that it was reasonable to use deadly force to protect oneself.

Unfortunately, Florida’s law expressly presumes that the individual using deadly force in self-defense had a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury. It also immunizes the individual from arrest or even being detained in custody, hence the failure of the police to arrest George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who has acknowledged shooting Martin.

One can only be shocked at this law’s idiocy. It is, simply, an invitation to kill.

Under the “stand your ground” law, any liar who kills someone and can concoct a reasonably plausible story cannot be arrested by the police or even taken in for questioning. Lest one think the Martin case is exceptional, justifiable homicide/self-defense claims have tripled since the law’s adoption, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The law also places police officers in a difficult situation; the killer’s story often cannot be contradicted because the person in the best position to challenge it is in no position to do so. That individual is dead - silent and cold.

That many people, including the legislators who authored the Florida legislation, have said the facts, as they emerged later, suggest that Zimmerman may not have acted in self-defense changes nothing.

The problem with the law is that, absent the outcry that followed, the facts would not have emerged. Unable to arrest and question the killer and to pursue the case, police find themselves in a situation where they are prevented from gathering the facts.

This structural limitation is exacerbated by the biases and prejudices that the officers bring with them regarding race, age, gender and criminality, to name just a few.

In their thoughtless attempts to undo the wisdom of centuries, extremists in the Florida Legislature went out of their way, if not to legalize murder, at least to decriminalize it. Each legislator who supported the law had a hand in Trayvon Martin’s killing and perhaps others.

With its craven attempt to garner votes by purportedly expanding individuals’ abilities to protect themselves, the Florida Legislature has made all of us targets and each of us a potential victim.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward L. Queen II.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Crime • Florida • Opinion • Race

soundoff (870 Responses)
  1. John of the Jungle

    I think the main issue with Stand Your Ground is that its broad interpretation makes it too easy to abuse and, rather than minimizing violent situations, encourages them to spiral out of control. There is a great difference in a person's mentality between "self-defense" and "standing your ground." It is the difference between defense and offense, basically. But that is the danger...as a society, do we really want to encourage self-proclaimed vigilantes (who may or may not have the slightest clue what they are doing) to go on the offense and start attacking people they perceive to be threats? I certainly don't want that, and I hope our society never degenerates like that...but stuff like this makes me wonder : (

    March 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  2. Alger Dave

    It's not unreasonable to assume that if someone was attacking you in the dark, it would be easy to think they had a weapon (even if you didn't see it) on their person that might be capable of killing you. Why else would someone like Mr. Martin (smaller in stature than Mr. Zimmerman) attack Mr. Zimmerman (which medical records will likely show). If you're the bigger Mr. Zimmerman, you'd immediately think that this smaller kid had a weapon or he wouldn't have tried something. I know I would. Let's wait for the facts to come out and then make a reasonable judgement. And let's put ourselves in both Mr. Martin's shoes and Mr. Zimmerman's before we speak out too loudly.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • John of the Jungle

      "If you're the bigger Mr. Zimmerman, you'd immediately think that this smaller kid had a weapon or he wouldn't have tried something"

      That's not necessarily true, there could be a number of reasons why someone would attack another person. The fact that no weapons were found on Martin's body proves that point.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Tony

      Your statement is patently absurd because Mr. Zimmerman approached Trayvon Martin, not the other way around. That fact is not in question.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  3. Jason Tolpin

    Once again the media fans the flames of blame and disinformation.

    Had Trayvon not attacked Zimmerman, he'd be alive today. That's a fact.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • CMH

      If Mr Zimmerman did not have a gun or had known how to use it to avoid a fist fight rather than as his way to 'fight back', then they both would be alive and this would be a non issue. If Treyvon had a gun they he could have use the 'Stand Your Ground' rule and killed Zimmerman for stalking him and chasing him.

      We get our very own 'Hunger Games' where the last man standing is the winner.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  4. calvin taylor

    Zimmerman did the right thing he called the cops .... Zimmerman did the wrong thing for following Martin. People lets use logic here. By the 911 tapes when Zimmerman caught up with Martin how do yall think he approached him? Did he say um excuse me sir do u mind telling me what your doing around here? And if anyone believes that how he came off to Martin then you need your head check!! I bet when he approached Martin he was hositle Martin seeing a man follow him felt scared. The reason he told his girl he was going to run was because of pride a sense of feeling invinceable nothing could hurt him. Now growing up in the projects in Northern New Jersey, I've seen folk get beat down. Looking at the video Zimmerman didn't resemble a guy that had his head smashed several times to the ground. His face look fine. Just like when Africian Americans were crying out that the Police is beating us and treating us unfairly those cries for help were pretty much ingored by White America until the Rodney King tapes came out. THE SANFORD POLICE DEPARTMENT try to cover up this story BUT THEY DIDN'T THINK THAT THIS STORY WOULD CATCH ON LIKE WILDFIRE!!!!!! Mark my words once this is all said and done alot of Police Officers in that department will get fired! The most scary part in all of this there are plenty of POLICE DEPARTMENTS like SANFORD IN AMERICA THAT HASN'T BEEN UNCOVERED!!! AMERICA HAS A HUGE RACE ISSUE!!! IF WHITE AMERICA WAS BURYING THEIR KIDS AT THE RATE THAT BLACKS ARE IT WOULD BE FRONT PAGE NEWS... BELIEVE THAT!

    March 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  5. calvin taylor


    March 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  6. Krush

    Once again, another person with a media outlet and an no tangible grasp on logic, common sense, and accountability wants to put blame somewhere else than where it belongs: on Zimmerman for his clear violation of self-defense laws that clearly outline criminal misconduct with fire arms and on Martin for being stupid enough to attack a complete stranger. Don't throw away laws that allow me to protect myself if I'm being mugged, carjacked, my life threatened, etc. by telling me I have to run away first. Oh yes, I can see it now: "I'm sorry, honey, but I have to retreat first before I can shoot the man who is attempting to carjack us to continue running from the police." Or how about this: "Hey, Mr. Mugger, do you mind waiting while I run away, call the police, and then wait ten minutes for them to arrive before you gut me like a fish and steal my wallet?" I'm not going to run away from a criminal threatening my life. I'm going to draw my gun and blow him away. No law should ever give the advantage to the criminal. Stand-your-ground laws are not an invitation to kill, morons threatening the lives of others is an invitation to kill.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Chino D

      I definitely agree with not taking away the rights of honest citizens to protect themselves. If you run they will chase you, adn will probably be worse. Using that defense is idiotic.

      It's gonna be so hard to get a sense of what really happened with the media blasting all sorts of information out there without knowing what really happened.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  7. Melissa

    This man, Zimmerman, is pathetic. How could a grown man really feel so threatened by a teenage boy that it would lead to fatally shooting him? Any real man wouldve looked at the kid and either walked away, or if truly felt threatened, give him a good push to stop things from escalating. Zimmerman is pathetic, anyone who hurts a child is. He should be shot by someone bigger than him so he can feel helpless like Trayvon Martin did.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • thorstein

      Hard to give a good push when you've been knocked to the ground and are having your head smashed violently into the sidewalk over and over.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Chino D

      I wasn't there, so don't know what happened, but to call a 17 year old a "child" and someone you can just "push" away is not right. I've known many a 17 year old (and younger) with more than enough physical prowess and ability to take down a "grown man".

      Now the fact he was shot unarmed is a different story. Did Z follow T? Sounds like it. What started the confrontation? We don't know. Was there a physical altercation? Sounds like there was. Now if Z pulled his gun, only for a fist fight, then jail time. If T saw the gun and reached for it during the altercation, then that changes the picture. Worse part is only 3 people know the truth. One is no longer with us, one obviously doesn't want to go to Jail, and the 3rd will judge both accordingly.

      Regardless of why or how it happened, it's a tragedy. One dies why? Cause he MAY have gotten loud with the guy following him. The other man go to jail for a long time (away from his family), why? Cause he THOUGHT the guy with the skittles was up to something and didn't use his head.

      Regardless, my heart goes out to the parents of T. No parent should ever have to see their child go before them. For Z , all I can say is not matter what he says, he has to live with the fact he shot an unarmed person whether it turns out legally to be "justified" or not, or whether he gets jail time or not.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  8. Paul SC

    If this man has a problem with defending himself all he needs to do is watch as intruders shoot him and his family. Simple. He can let the rest of us defend ourselves. This professor thinks he is an elitest who is probably secluded in Buckhead or mid Atlanta. He probably never ventures to the bad parts of Atlanta and locks his doors around black people, but given the opportunity will wax about the injustices of the legal system. Somehow I doubt a philosophical argument is going to stop the irrational of those who are willing to inflict random harm. This professor never had a real job out of law school at Indiana beyond non-profits and Academia. He has no idea what the real world is like. Its people like this that I cannot stand lecturing me. By the way, why isn't this guys teaching at law school with a JD? He clearly knows nothin of American tradition, perhaps he should stick with ethics and human rights.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  9. Big guy

    No matter what this is a tragedy. All the facts are not in so to say that Zimmerman is innocent or guilty at this point in time is foolish. It plays out two ways. There is a time period between the end of the 911 call and the incident that no one knows what happened and it that time there is lots of doubt. Following someone is not starting an altercation it is not accosting someone. It is perfectly legal to follow others even though it is weird. So if you believe Zimmerman and Martin attacked him it's self defense. If Martin was not hit first then its murder. This is not up for me or anyone on here to decide. This is why we have a justice system and people from both sides have forgotten that. It is up to the police to collect the evidence. Then the prosecutor has to decide if it is worth going to trial. If it goes to trial then it is up to a judge and jury. My question would be if this does go to trial is it possible to find an unbiased jury?

    March 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • The Four Kittens of the Apocalypse Stop for Crumpets and Tea

      I bet you have a lot of bumper stickers on your car.

      March 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Jesus

      You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.! ..

      March 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  11. Keith

    Was that a Congressman dressed like the Unabomber?

    March 30, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Dodney Rangerfield

      No that was the unabomber dressed as a congressman.

      March 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Brilliant

      Congratulations on getting your computer priviledges restored, Keith! Bellevue is so strict on those things.

      March 30, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  12. Pseudoname

    What's so special about the ground you're standing on? Why is the ground worth anyone's life? The most important part of firearm knowledge is knowing when NOT to use them. What separates a "punk" from a regular, responsible firearm owner is the willingness to use a gun. Regular owners understand that a handgun is a last resort, and that your right to be somewhere is not worth anyone's life. A handgun owner's first responsibility is to NOT use their gun. There's a word for people who discharge firearms with little provocation. "Criminal."

    March 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  13. Ben

    So how many times is it OK for somebody to slam your head against the ground before you can defend yourself?

    March 30, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Prayer jerks

      Funny how video taken just after of Zimmerman showed absolutely no bruising, cuts or blood to his "slammed head" and "broken, bloody" nose.

      Funny how, had Zimmerman obeyed the instructions of the police dispatcher, the confrontation necver would have happened.

      Zimmerman's vigilante trip led him into an unnecessary, badly-handled confrontaion, and he killed a guy armed with skittles. While the case looks like it has been bungled too badly for a conviction, Zimmerman gets to spend the rest of his life carrying this incident, letting it fester in his soul, trying to tell himself that he was right.

      March 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Dodney Rangerfield

      Quick healer?

      March 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Big guy

      Prayer jerks how do you know he didn't obey the dispatcher. He was out of the car and following when the dispatcher told him not to follow (you can hear him get out earlier on the tape). He then says ok and hangs up. According to Zimmerman he was on his way back to his car when he was attacked. There is time between the end of the call and the incident that no one knows what happened except Zimmerman.

      March 30, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  14. The Master

    You can write this idiot at equeen@emory.edu

    March 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  15. Big John Holmes

    If you are intentionally trying to look like a punk, you are a punk. After enough punks get shot with hoodies, maybe they won't be such a cool thing. Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton should just pack up their bags and give up the citizenship in the U.S. they hate so much. The people of this country need to take it back from the Lawyers and the gangs. Being in the middle of those two is no sweet spot.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • lunchbreaker

      White people can be punks to.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • Tony

      If you're intentionally trying to sound like a racist idiot, you're doing a great job Little John.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  16. lunchbreaker

    So based on the interpretation of the law, If I start a fight, I have the right to defend myself with deadly force. Zimmerman wants to complain about how this situation ruined his life, but all he had to do to avoid all this was to listen to the 911 operator's advice and leave the kid be. One of the exceptions to the "Stand your ground" is "A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony." Zimmerman had no proof the kid was doing anything illegal, so the kid had every right to defend himself with deadly force also. The folly of the law is no matter how it started or who started it, whoever survives walks away scott free. Imagine if it went the other way. 17 year old kid beats armed man to death.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • GAD

      NO you goof ball. If you are walking down the street a minding your own business and somebody starts a fight you have the right to defend yourself with what ever means you have available. I for one am sick and tired of having to submit to the thugs on the street. Now if you on the other hand start the fight the other person has every right to defend him or herself.

      March 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • juniorbarnes

      You got it. If you feel you are in danger, you can protect yourself!

      March 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  17. Stephen

    I am a concealed weapon permit holder in Florida and support the "stand your ground" law. I also believe, based on the news reports and 911 recording, that Zim should be charge and tried for murder. IMO he did not act in accordance withthe intent of the law, so he should not be protected by it. However, if a knife weilding thug tries to rob me, he would find that I will shoot to defend what is mine. That is what centuries of law have taught us is the great state of Florida.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • The Master


      March 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Mike in NJ

      I agree. But I think the Stand Your Ground law is fatally flawed, because it presumes that the gun owner is knowledgeable enough to use instantly deadly force responsibly. Perhaps you should have a legal permit to carry baseball bats in Florida. Then if someone messes with you, you can bat-fight it out.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • juniorbarnes

      Not, murder but manslaughter for sure. Its clear Mr. Martin was a no good punk, but at the time of the allged incident he apeared to not be doing anything illegal and Mr. Zimmerman really had no business confronting him.

      March 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  18. Reality

    ONLY FOR THE NEWCOMERS:--–>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    The hoodie as the new sign of crime?

    From today's local newspaper: "Mayor decries killing of Fla. teen"

    25 lines down another headline: "Man Shot Dead at Apartments"

    "The man was shot with a handgun at close range by a man in a gray hoodie".

    Couple this with almost daily news' accounts and photos of robberies of convenience stores and small grocercies by teens and young adults dressed in hoodies and no wonder the country is sensitized by the head-hiding hoodie. And then there are all the TV cop shows with almost daily stories depicting the same scenario.

    Note: Some banks now ban the wearing of head-hiding hoodies in their facilities.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Mike in NJ

      Perhaps if there was less 'gun-fetishism', there would be less hoodie-crime – or ANY crime for that matter. Perhaps the hoodie is not the 'smoking gun' – perhaps it is the actual smoking gun.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Reality

      Tis a combination of security cameras, smokin guns and head-hiding hodies.

      March 30, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • juniorbarnes

      GREAT POINT! The hoodie is the unifrom of choice for most criminals. Tw words: UNI BOMBER. He made the hoodie cool. Its just like wearing a red bandana..... doesnt mean you are a Blood, but if you have one on (and are a minority) there's a darn good chance you are or want people to think you are!

      March 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  19. jfchrist

    you better believe at 65 yr old i will shoot you azz if you jump on me.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  20. Steve

    The 'Stand Your Ground' law wouldn't be necessary if the state hadn't turned centuries of legal tradition on its head by extending the 'duty to retreat' into absurdity; literally forcing someone to have their back to a corner before they can take affirmative action in their own defense. If you want to place the corpse of Trayvon Martin at the feet of the 'Stand Your Ground' law you're free to do so, but the names of those responsible for it mustn't be anonymous. We can start with Edward Queen and add those that would imprison a man or woman for defending their very own lives.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • jfchrist

      im on your side

      March 30, 2012 at 7:55 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.