George Zimmerman has been acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin, after the prosecution failed to establish his guilt in the charge of second-degree murder. It’s important to be clear about what this means. That the jury ruled in accordance with the law – which presumes innocence, and places the burden on the prosecution to prove its case – doesn’t preclude Mr. Zimmerman from responsibility for the death of Mr. Martin. Nor does it vindicate Mr. Zimmerman’s story; the only thing the jury decided was that there was enough doubt in the state’s case to justify a verdict of not guilty.
What we know, for certain, is that Trayvon Martin is dead as a result of an encounter with George Zimmerman.
What comes next? The attorney for the Martin family has not ruled out a civil suit, and the Justice Department has announced its decision to see if it can bring charges against Mr. Zimmerman for violation of Martin’s civil rights. Odds are good that this was the beginning of the legal battle, and not the end.
But what about the implications for the rest of the country? Contrary to popular opinion, the “Stand Your Ground” laws – which permit an expansive definition of “self defense” – didn’t play a part in the jury’s decision. George Zimmerman was acquitted on the basis of ordinary self-defense law – the same law that’s operative in almost every other state in the country. There is one peculiarity that’s novel to Florida, however. The Florida statute holds that lethal force in self-defense is justified if “the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant.”
Reasonable is a loose term. Indeed, under this, it’s possible to start a fight, or provoke one with your actions, and if you find yourself on the losing side, you are permitted – by law – to use lethal force.
If anything, this highlights the extent to which the American understanding of self-defense is complicated by the presence of a widely-armed citizenry. As Scott Lemieux notes for The American Prospect, “In most cases someone with a gun should not be able to escape culpability if he initiates a conflict with someone unarmed and the other party ends up getting shot and killed. Under the current law in many states, people threatened by armed people have few good options, because fighting back might create a license to kill.”
The Zimmerman decision doesn’t turn Florida – or any other part of the country – into a version of the Wild West. What it does do, however, is emphasize the extent to which lax gun laws – and widespread gun ownership – have distorted the relationship of citizens to each other. If you’re confronted by someone who wants to do you harm, your ability to respond is sharply limited. And given the realities of race in this country, that’s especially true for African American men.
Jamelle Bouie is a Washington-based staff writer at American Prospect magazine and a columnist for the Daily Beast.