“If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.” – Thomas Jefferson
Laws are supposed to solve problems, not create them. Laws are supposed to provide clarity and objectivity, not create ambiguous uncertainties leading to questionable justice. Laws are meant to provide society with practical guidelines on living together peacefully and harmoniously, not to create discord among racially and ethnically different people in society. In all these respects, it is clear that stand-your-ground laws are a failure.
A stand-your-ground law states that a person may use deadly force in self-defense without any obligation to retreat, when faced with a reasonable perceived threat. These last three words are crucial to understand the illogical aspects of this law, not to mention the abusive ways in which it has been applied. More than half of the states in the United States have some sort of stand-your-ground law on the books.
Yet according to the police and prosecutors, stand-your-ground laws have allowed countless individuals to literally get away with murder by claiming self-defense, using deadly force in situations that have led to unnecessary deaths. They have also resulted in unjust rulings in court.
Controversies stemming from stand-your-ground laws reached boiling point in the fatal shooting of a 17 year old Florida teen, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood patrol watchman, George Zimmerman. The latter had perceived Martin to be armed and a potential threat, even citing that he was attacked by the teen; the stand-your-ground law therefore came into effect. However, it was later established that at the time of his death, Martin was far from being armed. What Zimmerman had perceived to be a weapon was actually a bag of candy and iced tea. Martin lost his life at the age of 17 due to this. Zimmerman was acquitted of his crime. Justice?
Once again, the controversy and irrationality of stand-your-ground laws has been seen in the shooting of another 17 year old Florida teen, Jordan Davis, by Michael Dunn. In this case, Dunn shot and killed Davis after an altercation over the loud music Davis and his friends were playing. There are no accounts of Dunn being attacked or threatened by Davis or by any of his friends, and no question of self-defense. However, Dunn applied the stand-your-ground law, and what resulted was the murder of an innocent teenager. To add to the injustice of the case, Dunn was recently convicted on three counts of “second degree attempted murder” for a clear case of murder.
Both Martin and Davis were African American teenagers. Should it be surprising that the African American community fears that the law does not protect young males of color in confrontational situations with white people? This once again opens a can of worms and creates discord among races rather than create harmony and provide justice as a law is expected to do. This is a far cry from what the definitions of a law entails.
The basis of stand-your-ground laws is that individuals should be able to use deadly force when they believe that they are confronted with a dangerous situation and remove themselves from harm’s way. In fact, more often than not, stand-your-ground laws encourage acts of retaliation through the use of deadly force. In the case of Jordan Davis, there was clearly no basis for any application of this law, as he and his friends did not present any danger to Michael Dunn.
Stand-your-ground laws rely on perceptions of danger, which are arbitrary and rely on a person’s individual reasoning. Permitting the use of deadly force based on such a subjective premise is clearly a flawed premise for law, and leads to the potential for increasing violence and wrongful deaths based on misunderstandings, miscommunications and racial prejudices. Is it therefore legally and morally responsible for an individual to assume a situation of danger and act as the judge, jury and executioner? It should lead any sane person to question the principle of “shoot first and ask questions later”.
by Sabria Chowdhury Balland
Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a Professor of English and French. She is also a columnist for US and European political and legal issues.