Trayvon Martin Case Reignites Gun Law Debate

In the wake of the tragic killing of the Florida teen, two student readings examine the controversy surrounding Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law and the wider gun control debate.

To The Teacher:

The shooting death in Sanford, Florida, of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin at the hands of 28-year-old George Zimmerman in February 2012 has touched off debate on many issues, including the role of race in both the shooting and the subsequent investigation by the Sanford Police department. In addition, the case has spurred renewed debate about gun control laws. In particular, Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law has faced renewed scrutiny as a result of the shooting. Under the law, an individual has no "duty to retreat" before resorting to the use of deadly force for self-defense. Version of this law are on the books in nine other states, with others considering similar measures.

Using the Martin case and "Stand Your Ground" measures as a launching point, this lesson also considers the issue of gun control more broadly. In the wake of previous high-profile gun violence cases such as the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in 2011, the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, and the Columbine school shooting in 1999, many people demanded - and expected - passage of stronger gun control laws at the state or national levels. However, for the most part, restrictions on gun ownership have not passed. Now the Trayvon Martin shooting has again cast a sharp light on this issue.

This exercise consists of two student readings. The first reading examines the debate surrounding Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. What is the "Stand Your Ground" law? What do supporters and critics have to say about it? What effect has it had? The second reading takes a wider look at the gun control debate. Should stronger gun control laws be passed? Questions for student discussion follow each reading.


Student Reading 1: 

Trayvon Martin and Florida's Stand Your Ground Law

On the night of February 26, 2012, a 17-year-old African American boy named Trayvon Martin was visiting his father's girlfriend in a gated community in Stanford, Florida - a suburb of Orlando. Martin left the house to go to a nearby convenience store to purchase candy and a drink. On his walk back to the house, he was spotted by 28-year-old "neighborhood watch captain" George Zimmerman. According to the recording of the 911 call that was released to the public, Zimmerman phoned in to report Martin - who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt - as a suspicious character. Although the police dispatcher informed Zimmerman that he did not need to pursue Martin, he did so anyway. Within the next few minutes, a confrontation occurred, resulting in the unarmed Martin being shot and killed. Zimmerman was taken in by the Sanford police, but released the same night without being charged with a crime.

Since the release of the 911 tapes from the night of the incident, the case has featured prominently in national headlines. Many contend that race has played a significant role in both the incident itself - in particular, Zimmerman's interpretation of Martin as "suspicious" - and in the subsequent release of Zimmerman without charges. On April 11, after weeks of public outcry and protests, Zimmerman was finally charged with second-degree murder and taken into custody.

In addition to the question of race and racism, the Trayvon Martin case has touched off debate about a variety of other issues. One is the issue of gun control, and especially Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law. Nine other states have also adopted versions of this law, and others are contemplating its passage.

So, what is the "Stand Your Ground" law? Florida's version was passed in 2005 during the administration of Republican Governor Jeb Bush, with significant support from pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA). The Florida law provides that an individual has no "duty to retreat" before resorting to the use of deadly force for self-defense. The law states:

A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other's imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if.... [h]e or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.

The law builds on the "Castle Doctrine," which holds that individuals have the right to protect themselves using deadly force inside of their own homes. (The Castle Doctrine derives from the old English common law concept that "a man's home is his castle.")

Opponents of the "Stand Your Ground" law argue that it is confusing and makes it very hard to prosecute cases of homicide in which the shooter claims self-defense. They also contend that the bill actually encourages gun violence by making it legally permissible to shoot first. As Miami Police Chief John Timoney said when the Florida law was first passed in 2005:

"Whether it's trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn't want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house," Chief Timoney said, "you're encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn't be used."

In the Trayvon Martin case, the "Stand Your Ground Law," coupled with George Zimmerman's claim of self-defense, may prevent him from being convicted of murder.

Supporters of the law contend that the Martin shooting does not discredit "Stand Your Ground." They argue that if it is true that Zimmerman chased down Martin and initiated a confrontation, then Zimmerman would not be protected under the law. Dennis Baxley, a Republican in the Florida House who sponsored the legislation, said he did not think the Stand Your Ground law applied to the Trayvon Martin case. "There is nothing in the castle doctrine as found in Florida statutes that authenticates or provides for the opportunity to pursue and confront individuals," Baxley wrote in an opinion piece for Fox News. "It simply protects those who would be potential victims by allowing for force to be used in self-defense."

Nevertheless, according to a report for CBS Miami, Florida state data shows that the number of shooting deaths due to "self-defense" have skyrocketed in the years since the bill was passed:

As some state lawmakers are calling for a re-thinking of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows people to defend themselves from danger without the need to first try to get away, an analysis of state data shows deaths due to self defense are up over 200 percent since the law took effect...

According to state crime stats, Florida averaged 12 "justifiable homicide" deaths a year from 2000-2004. After "Stand Your Ground" was passed in 2005, the number of "justifiable" deaths has almost tripled to an average of 35 a year, an increase of 283% from 2005-2010.

In recent weeks, the pressure from Americans demanding justice for Trayvon Martin has resulted in increased scrutiny for Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. In March, the Florida Prosecuting Attorney's Association convened a task force to examine the law, and Florida Governor Rick Scott announced plans to conduct his own investigation of "Stand Your Ground."

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What is the "Stand Your Ground" law? How does it expand on the "Castle Doctrine"?

3. Why do critics believe that the "Stand Your Ground" law can increase gun violence?

4. Defenders of "Stand Your Ground" argue that it would not protect George Zimmerman? Why?

5. Do you think that giving individuals the right to defend themselves with potentially lethal violence makes us more or less safe? Explain your position.


Student Reading 2:

Why Don't High-Profile Shootings Result in Tighter Gun Control?

High-profile incidents, such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin, often reopen a broader discussion of gun control laws in the United States. In the wake of previous gun violence cases such as the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in early 2011, the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, and the Columbine school shooting in 1999, many people fought for stronger gun control laws at the state or national levels, and many anticipated that these laws would pass. However, for the most part, legislators have not enacted new restrictions on gun ownership.

Pro-gun advocates in the United States argue that gun ownership is a right guaranteed by the Constitution and that widespread gun ownership actually makes our society safer. A CBS News report in February 2011 quoted National Rifle Association president Wayne LaPierre:

"Good guys carrying guns can and do make a difference," he said, adding that "the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." LaPierre argued that everyone is safer when bad people "can't tell the difference between the lions and the lambs."

Gun opponents, in contrast, contend that the widespread availability of guns, as well as the lax restrictions on who can own them, combine to make us less safe. They cite evidence that the U.S., with its lax gun laws, has much higher rates of death from firearms than other industrialized countries.(

Author Abe Sauer wrote for the website The Awl in March 29, 2012, that the Trayvon Martin shooting illustrates that even when guns are obtained legally, the pervasive US"gun culture" creates a dangerous climate:

This will happen again, probably soon... because of guns and a nation's increasing obsession with arming itself against all reason. And what is a nation armed to the teeth supposed to do once it has spent billions of dollars and countless political capital to be so locked and loaded? Sit on the couch and watch "Dancing with the Stars"? Hell no.

When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail, and when all you have is a gun everything looks like an imminent, violent threat.

In the weeks since the Trayvon Martin shooting, gun control groups have seized on the attention that the case has garnered to push for stricter gun laws. One of the largest gun control groups, the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence, has released a petition entitled "Americans for the Freedom to buy Skittles Without Getting Shot" - a reference to the type of candy Martin was holding when he was shot by Zimmerman. The petition reads:

As an American, I demand the basic freedom to walk my streets in safety-including the freedom to go to the store and buy Skittles without getting shot.

I will hold accountable any elected official that puts guns in the hands of dangerous people - people like George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman had an arrest record and a history of violence, yet was still allowed to walk his streets with a loaded, hidden gun. That is the gun lobby's vision of America. It is not mine.

In the past, high-profile shooting cases have raised calls for new laws limiting gun use, but rarely do substantive gun control laws ever make it through the United States Congress. Why? As the Brady Campaign petition hints, pro-gun advocates spend enormous amounts of money to maintain a powerful lobbying presence in Congress. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in US politics and its effect on policy, "During the 2010 election cycle, the NRA spent more than $7.2 million on independent expenditures at the federal level -- messages that advocate for or against political candidates."

After Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot at a public appearance in January 2011, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey introduced legislation to enact a number of gun safety measures, including a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines of ammunition. As the Huffington Post reported on April 9, 2012:

The proposals fit the climate: Democrats and Republicans were coming together in a moment of unity, and President Barack Obama was trying to heal the nation in a televised memorial service in Tucson.

But even then, Lautenberg, a longtime gun control advocate, suspected that his legislation and any momentum on Capitol Hill would be stopped by one force: the National Rifle Association.

"This package of common-sense gun safety bills would sail through Congress if it wasn't for the special interest gun lobby," he said in a statement at the time. "It's time to put aside business as usual in Washington, and start considering the safety of our families over special interests."

His skepticism was well founded. None of his bills went anywhere. In fact, none even picked up a single Republican cosponsor.

"We're persisting," Lautenberg told the Huffington Post months later. He called it "one of the most flagrant disconnects with our society" that the NRA would try to block passage of his bill banning high-capacity gun magazines....

Few interest groups are better at affecting the legislative process than the gun lobby. Within months of pushing back against legislative responses to the Giffords' shooting, it was again on the offensive, shepherding legislation that requires states that allow concealed weapons to recognize each other's permits. Its success has been even more pronounced on the state level, and it hasn't been restricted to matters of Second Amendment rights. Over the past few years, the National Rifle Association has affected campaign finance legislation, voter ID laws and immigration reform.

Against a force as powerful as the gun lobby, people who are concerned about gun control face an uphill battle. Whether changes to gun laws pass in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting may hinge on how much the public mobilizes on this issue.

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What does author Abe Sauer mean when he refers to "gun culture" in the United States? Do you have experiences that make you feel that guns are a distinctive part of American culture?

3. Why do pro-gun advocates believe that having fewer gun control laws makes us safer?

4. Why have stricter gun control measures generally failed to become laws even after high-profile shootings?

5. What do you think? Does it make sense to restrict gun ownership, or do stricter gun laws violate our constitutional rights?

This lesson was written by Mark Engler for TeachableMoment.Org, with research assistance by Eric Augenbraun.

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