‘Stand your ground’ laws proliferate a decade after killing of Trayvon Martin

Demonstrators hold signs in support of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Demonstrators hold signs in support of Trayvon Martin on March 21, 2012, in New York. Ten years ago when Trayvon Martin was fatally shot, Florida was one of the few states with “stand your ground” laws that eased use of deadly force in the face of danger. Now, more than 30 states have some form of the law.
(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

The “stand your ground” self-defense law had been in effect in Florida for over six years when it became part of the national vocabulary with the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. When the 17-year-old was fatally shot, Florida was one of the few states with a law removing the duty to retreat from danger before using deadly force.

Now, over 30 states have some form of the law, which recent research indicates is associated with more deaths — as many as 700 additional firearm killings a year, according to a study published last week in the journal JAMA Network Open.

The study found a national increase of up to 11% in homicide rates per month between 1999 and 2017 in stand-your-ground states. The largest increases, between 16% and 33%, were in Southern states, the study found.


“These findings suggest that adoption of [such] laws across the U.S. was associated with increases in violent deaths, deaths that could potentially have been avoided,” the authors concluded.

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Advocates for the laws, especially the National Rifle Assn., argue they act as a crime deterrent by ensuring people can protect themselves and others against a would-be assailant.

In 2005, Florida became the first state to adopt such a law. It was in force when Martin was fatally shot by self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012. Martin was Black; Zimmerman is white and Latino.

The initial police report said Zimmerman called authorities to report a person who he said “looks like he’s up to no good.” He followed Martin despite being told not to. A confrontation followed in which Zimmerman claimed Martin attacked him, forcing him to use his gun for protection. Zimmerman was allowed to go free.

Martin’s parents questioned that version of events, and the case eventually became known nationwide. Zimmerman was arrested six weeks later after then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor.

Zimmerman’s lawyers opted not to pursue a stand-your-ground claim before trial, which could have resulted in the dismissal of murder charges and immunity from prosecution. But the law was essentially used to claim self-defense in the trial, which resulted in his acquittal.


Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who was involved in the case, called the Florida law “a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card that is essentially a license to kill.”

The debate over such laws continues today. Gun rights supporters argue people should not have to try to retreat before defending themselves, said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation.

He pointed to a recent Florida case in which a homeowner shot and killed a man trying to break into his house; the man killed was suspected of shooting a police officer. While other self-defense laws could apply, Gottlieb said that “stand your ground” laws offer reassurance.

“It’s made a very big difference in self-defense situations,” he said.

Last year, three more states passed laws removing the duty to retreat — Ohio, Arkansas and North Dakota, where the law’s sponsor said it “ensures someone will not have to run away prior to protecting themselves or their family.”

And six states loosened restrictions on carrying a gun in public by removing the requirement for a permit — the most to do so in a single year. Over 20 states now allow carrying without a permit.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this session on whether New York’s restrictive gun permitting law violates the 2nd Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.” The law’s defenders say striking it down would lead to more guns on the streets of cities including New York and Los Angeles.


Gun control activists say the increasing presence of guns and such laws are a deadly combination.

“Laws like ‘stand your ground,’ or shoot-first laws, give people like Jordan’s killer, my son’s killer, the idea that you can shoot first and ask questions later,” said Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), who entered politics after her son was slain at a Florida gas station in 2012 by a white man who was angry over loud music playing in a car in which Jordan Davis, a Black teenager, was a passenger. Michael Dunn used the stand-your-ground law in his defense, but was convicted and is serving a life sentence.

Rovina Billingslea’s family has also been forever affected by such laws. Her cousin Jasmine McAfee was killed by an intimate partner near Orlando about four years ago. The shooter was acquitted under the stand-your-ground law.

“There was no justice, no closure — just pain,” Billingslea said.

There are new efforts to resist such laws amid rising gun violence: Lawmakers from 19 states have joined a new task force aimed at amending or repealing the laws, especially in Georgia, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Florida. The push is backed by Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, whose founder, Shannon Watts, said they should be called “shoot first laws” since they differ significantly from other self-defense laws.

Since Martin’s slaying, Florida has amended its law to shift the burden of proof from the person claiming self-defense to the prosecutor handling the case.

Prosecutors and many police organizations oppose the laws, contending they can protect criminals and hinder the ability to bring justice in fatal shootings.


The “laws provide safe harbors for criminals and prevent prosecutors from bringing cases against those who claim self-defense after unnecessarily killing or injuring others,” David LaBahn, president of the Assn. of Prosecuting Attorneys, testified to Congress.

In Florida, a retired police captain is currently on trial, accused of murder in the 2014 shooting of a man in a movie theater. A judge denied former Capt. Curtis Reeves’ stand-your-ground claim.

Reeves still claims self-defense in killing Chad Oulson in a dispute over Oulson’s cellphone use during movie previews. He shot Oulson to death after Oulson tossed a bag of popcorn at him.

So far, that has not qualified as a stand-your-ground defense.

“That’s no reason to kill another person,” Assistant State Atty. Scott Rosenwasser said in court last week. “This was an intentional and purposeful shooting.”