Trayvon Martin: Justifiable homicide vs. license to kill

Controversy over the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin, shot dead without provocation has called US self-defense laws into question. Critics say the laws, in combination with lax gun laws, has increased “justifiable homicides” in recent years.

Trayvon Martin’s home state of Florida has one of the loosest interpretations of the stand-your-ground, or “SYG”, legislation.

The bill allows citizens to employ “defensive force” to protect themselves if they believe their lives are at risk. Currently variations of the legislation exist in 26 American states, while “Castle law” is in effect in 30 states, which can justify a homicide if an intruder trespasses on the home or car of an individual.

According to a Wall Street Journal investigation based on statistics from the FBI, since the bill was introduced in 2005 the number of “justifiable homicides” in Florida has almost tripled. It has risen from an average of 12 a year prior to the legislation to 33 as an annual average.

Nationwide the number of cases has almost doubled in the last decade.

Critics claim that in states where the legislation is active known criminals have used the bill to avoid prosecution.

A Guardian newspaper analysis of the FIB source information on the growing number of “justifiable homicides” across the US has revealed discrepancies in the data.

It turns out that, along with several other states, Florida does not provide data on justifiable homicides to the FBI. New York has completely refrained from supplying numbers to the FBI with information from certain years.

The gaps in the data suggest that the actual rate of justifiable homicides could be significantly higher.

"This research demonstrates a fundamental point. Stand-your-ground laws are dangerous on their own as a mentality. But when combined with weak gun laws they become a recipe for tragedy," Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign said commenting on the research.

On March 26 George Zimmerman, a member of a local Neighborhood Watch group, shot dead 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed. He had followed the youth on the basis that he looked “suspicious”.

Zimmerman claims Martin assaulted him and was shot in the ensuing struggle. Sandford police did not press charges against Zimmerman as he claimed the attack was in self-defense and as such was not a crime according to SYG laws.

George Zimmerman had previously been charged with resisting arrest and accused of domestic violence.

The case is currently being reviewed by prosecutors amid accusations that the shooting was motivated by racism.

­Lax arms laws fuel justifiable homicides?

The attack sparked a wave of protests across the US calling for justice for the deceased teenager and a possible repeal of SYG legislation, with many critics correlating the rise in homicides to states with weak gun controls.

Current statistics put the number of firearms circulating in the US at around 294 million.

Ladd Everitt, director of communications for the coalition to stop gun violence points the finger at the National Rifle Association, estimated to have shelled out more than $7 million on political ads during the 2010 mid-term election.

“Everything that the NRA pushes at the state and federal level is designed to sell more weapons. That's what this is about,” he told RT.

He went on to highlight the influence wielded by the group on the political playing field, alluding to “campaign contributions to Florida politicians or corporate money that can be spread around a number of different ways.”

This in combination with a law that gives citizens “immunity from criminal prosecution and from civil litigation” projects the wrong image to the American public, giving them the impetus to “shoot and potentially kill another human being” without the threat of prosecution.