US President Barack Obama unveils a series of proposals to counter gun violence as Vice President Joe Biden looks on during an event at the White House in Washington, January 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Larry Downing)
President Obama’s decision to speak frankly, and extensively, about a Florida jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman, and about the array of issues that have arisen since Zimmerman shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was broadly significant. Only rarely does an American president step so directly and so intentionally into so charged a debate, and even more rarely does a president do so in such personal terms.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” the president explained Friday. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
That was the headline statement.
But the president did not make his unexpected appearance Friday to talk about himself. He was talking issues—specific issues—and explaining why they matter.
It was a teaching moment. And Obama used it well:
(When) you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me—at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws—everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
Obama got specific, especially with regard to the “stand your ground” laws that have come into focus since Trayvon Martin’s killing. And his remarks, coming at a critical point in the development of the debate about those laws and of the national movement to overturn them, will sustain and encourage those who argue, as The Seattle Times has, that “the single best memorial to Trayvon Martin—Justice for Trayvon—is repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.”
Developed in Florida by a National Rifle Association lobbyist and her allies in 2005, that state’s “stand your ground” law became the basis for laws that the NRA and the American Legislative Exchange Council succeeded over the next seven years in getting enacted in more than two dozen states. The outcry over the Trayvon Martin killing led large corporations, which had backed ALEC, to quit the group, and ALEC eventually announced that it was “refocusing” away from advocacy for “stand your ground” legislation. But the laws the group created remain on the books, and they continue to influence criminal justice in Florida and nationally—as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin highlighted in announcing Friday that his Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee will hold hearings on how “stand your ground” laws were passed, and their impact on society.
Florida’s “stand your ground” law—which permits an individual who feels threatened to employ deadly force even when it would have been possible to retreat—influenced the Zimmerman case from start to finish. After an initial failure by local authorities to charge the man who shot an unarmed Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman was finally charged and then tried. Though Zimmerman’s lawyers mounted a classic self-defense argument at trail, the jury instructions said that “he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so.” And a key juror told CNN that she reached her “not guilty” stance at least in part “because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground.”
Now, in Florida and other states, newspapers are calling for the repeal of “stand your ground” laws. Activists are demanding that they be struck from the books. And lawmakers, even some who backed the laws initially, are rethinking “stand your ground.”
It is in this context that the president entered the “stand your ground” debate. In addition to discussing the value of laws that bar racial profiling, Obama said:
Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it—if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.
I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the “stand your ground” laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case. On the other hand, if we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?
And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.
That’s a nuanced way in which to discuss “stand your ground” laws.
And it is valuable.
The key in opening the debate about “stand your ground” is not to convince legislators, and Americans, who are already opposed to the laws that they are properly offended. Nor is there much hope that politicians who have aligned themselves with the gun industry (which has advocated for “stand your ground” laws in hopes that they will limit liability for gun manufacturers and retailers) will be caused to rethink. There will always be those, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who imagine that any criticism of “stand your ground” laws represents a “disregard for the Bill of Rights”—conveniently forgetting that the country survived as a constitutional republic for the better part of 220 years before any “stand your ground” laws began to be enacted.
The key is to speak to reasonable Americans, some of them Democrats and some of them Republicans, some of them liberals and some of them conservatives, who have a creeping suspicion that laws permitting the use of deadly force even when it could be avoided might not be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d all like to see.
The president was speaking to those Americans in his remarks on Friday. And it is vital to maintain that conversation.
John Nichols and Bob McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says: “Dollarocracy gets at what’s ailing America better than any other diagnosis I’ve encountered. Plus it prescribes a cure. What else could a reader—or a citizen—ask? To me, it’s the book of the year.”
Who had a right to stand his ground: George Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin?