“I am Trayvon Martin.” The homemade sign in the video above helps explain the outpouring of rage from the African American community. Millions of African Americans believe that George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin for the crime of WWB (Walking While Black). That may or may not be true. Which doesn’t seem to matter. The protestors see the killing in black and white: one of theirs killed one of ours. Equally important, theirs was armed. Ours was not. We were defenseless against them (hence the constant reference to Trayvon Martin’s iced tea and Skittles). And that’s where gun rights come into the picture . . .
As I said at the beginning of this cause celebre, there’s no denying the fact that Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have died from a gunshot wound if George Zimmerman wasn’t carrying a Kel Tec PF-9 on the night in question. But let’s flip that around: would George Zimmerman have died if he didn’t hadn’t been carrying a gun?
With certain caveats, if Zimmerman’s life depended on shooting Trayvon Martin then the shooting was a justifiable homicide. Here are the three main factors to consider:
1. Who started it?
A lot of protestors’ animus stems from the “fact” that Zimmerman initiated the fight that led to Martin’s death. The exact nature and chronology of the contact or contacts between Zimmerman and Martin is unknown. But it is highly relevant.
If Zimmerman started the actual fight, if he was the aggressor, he did not have the right to escalate the level of violence. If Zimmerman didn’t start the fight, if he was the victim, Zimmerman did have the legal right to use a higher level of force to defend himself.
The amount of force allowed by law for self-defense must be proportionate to the threat. In other words, if someone slaps you, you can’t shoot them. If someone charges at you with a knife, you may (subject to other conditions described below) shoot them in self-defense.
But you can only escalate along the spectrum of violence if you are the victim. At the same time, it’s important to remember that fights often go in “rounds.” The legal classification of aggressor and victim can change during an altercation.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Zimmerman started the deadly battle by confronting Martin. The two men have words. Zimmerman shoves Martin. Martin punches Zimmerman to the ground and starts bashing Zimmerman’s head into the pavement. In this scenario, the person who initiated the physical confrontation, Zimmerman, is the aggressor.
Alternatively, let’s say Zimmerman confronts and shoves Martin. Martin punches Zimmerman. Zimmerman disengages from the fight and heads for his car. Martin pursues Zimmerman. Martin tackles Zimmerman to the ground and starts bashing his head into the pavement. In that case, Martin is the aggressor and Zimmerman is the victim.
Zimmerman’s lawyer said his client was walking back to his car when Martin jumped him. If so, regardless of the verbal confrontation leading up to the attack, Zimmerman was the victim of an assault and, thus, allowed to escalate the amount of force used to defend himself. To a point and again, within limits.
2. Did Trayvon Martin pose a credible threat of death or grievous bodily harm to George Zimmerman?
Until we have a better idea of what happened in Florida, it’s impossible to establish whether or not Zimmerman was the victim or aggressor and, thus, “over-reacted” to the assault by shooting Martin. But this much is true: you can’t use lethal force against an aggressor unless you are in danger of death or grievous bodily harm.
Would George Zimmerman have died or suffered a debilitating injury if he hadn’t shot Trayvon Martin? That could well depend on the amount of force involved. Aside from eye witness accounts, a medical examination of Zimmerman’s wounds would go a long way towards establishing the threat level he faced immediately before he pulled the trigger.
Yes, but—even if Martin wasn’t beating Zimmerman to death, did Zimmerman believe his life was in danger?
As it does in any homicide case, Florida’s so-called self-defense law takes into account the defender’s state of mind. In terms of a defensive gun use, the shooter’s subjective opinion of the conflict at the time of the assault is legally germaine. However . . .
Contrary to gun advocates’ propaganda, the shooter’s opinion of a threat of death or grievous bodily harm is not the ultimate determinant of whether or not he’ll be arrested and/or charged with murder. It’s one factor that can effect the DA’s decision to press charges, and which crimes the shooter may face.
The shooter’s rationale must also survive an objective assessment.
If, for example, the DA determined that Zimmerman actually believed that Martin was trying to kill him, but his belief was unreasonable, the DA could charge Zimmerman with manslaughter. If the DA reckoned Zimmerman set out to kill someone that night, it would be a case of premeditated murder.
Legally, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether or not Zimmerman thought that shooting Martin was a reasonable response to the violent encounter. The “reasonability” of Zimmerman’s belief was subject to scrutiny by the police and the District Attorney. It will now receive due consideration by a grand jury and (I’m thinking) a jury.
3. Was the [assumed] lethal threat imminent?
Gun control advocates have called Florida’s Stand Your Ground law a “shoot first ask questions later” law. That’s a gross distortion of the truth. A Florida citizen is only allowed to shoot an attacker if the attacker’s in the process of trying to kill the shooter. As the rabbi puts it, imminence must be imminent.
That particular aspect of the Martin case seems pretty straightforward. By all accounts, Martin was on top of Zimmerman—trying to injure him—when Zimmerman shot Martin.
In short . . .
If Martin initiated the attack, and posed a lethal threat to Zimmerman, and the threat was credible, and Martin was in the act of assaulting Zimmerman when Zimmerman shot Martin, Zimmerman was within his rights to shoot Martin in self-defense.
The fact that the Sanford police made an initial determination that George Zimmerman acted in self-defense is a good indication of Zimmerman’s innocence. Which exists until and unless the police can prove otherwise—regardless of the shooter’s race, religion or creed.
We Are George Zimmerman
Given the political pressure involved in this case, the Martin shooting is sure to go to a grand jury. Average citizens will weigh the evidence against Zimmerman and decide if he failed to meet all the requirements for the use of deadly force. If the grand jury sends the case to trial, a jury of Zimmerman’s peers will attempt to answer the same set of questions.
All of us who carry a firearm stand a chance of going through the exact same process if we shoot someone in self-defense. In that sense, gun control advocates are correct: I am George Zimmerman. I’m not a racist, but I know that I too will face judgement if I ever have to use my firearm against another human being.