Although George Zimmerman’s lawyers did not offer a formal stand-your-ground defense of their client, the jury was instructed that “he had no duty to retreat and the right to stand his ground.” Anyone who thinks that Florida’s stand-your-ground law wasn’t the essential context for Trayvon Martin’s death should ponder the fact that after the law was passed in 2006, self-defense claims tripled in the Sunshine State.
What the law did was expand the so-called Castle Doctrine, which permits home invaders to be shot with impunity, to any place anyone feels threatened. It replaced the longstanding legal “duty to retreat” in the face of danger with the idea that you carry your castle with you wherever you go.
In pondering Attorney General Holder’s denunciation of stand-your-ground laws, you may wonder how half the states of the Union could have followed Florida’s lead so quickly, especially in the face of widespread opposition from law enforcement officials. The answer, in a word, is ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council. Funded by the Koch brothers and the large corporations that belong, ALEC has been the key organization in advancing right-wing policies in state legislatures for nearly 40 years.
When the NRA decided to promote stand-your-ground in 2005, ALEC embraced the cause, created a model bill, and got the GOP-controlled Florida legislature to pass it. Then ALEC took the legislation on the road.
Then, in the wake of the Martin killing, ALEC perceived a duty to retreat. Dozens of its member corporations — those like Coca-Cola and Walmart with large minority retail clienteles — resigned their memberships. The ALEC stand-your-ground task force was shut down. But that hardly absolves the organization of responsibility.
Yesterday, a coalition of liberal groups staged a protest at the opening of ALEC’s new headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Josh Horowitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, put the case this way:
There is a bedrock principle of all law going back to the Jewish Bible, through Roman law, through the British Common Law, and through two centuries of American law, which is that life is precious and if you can spare a human life, you do that. In 2005, pushed by the NRA, Florida decided to change that law. All of a sudden, they have a law that says, “If you can walk away, you don’t have to. You can kill if you want to. Somehow, ALEC thought that was a great idea, and pushed this bill, with the NRA, in 25 states around the country, abrogating 3,000 years of law, legal precedent and common sense…Instead of sitting upstairs drinking wine and eating snacks and celebrating their move to Virginia, ALEC and the corporations that support it should humble themselves and work as hard as they can to repeal that stand your ground laws before one more kid is killed.
In the Sermon on the Mount, which might be characterized as the classic one-upping of Mosaic law, Jesus says that it’s not enough not to kill, you shouldn’t get angry without cause; and that rather than demand an eye for an eye when assaulted, you should turn the other cheek. I’d call that a duty to retreat, wouldn’t you?