A decade ago, the shooting death of Black teenager Trayvon Martin by an armed neighborhood watch volunteer ignited a national debate over gun violence, race and the power of self-defense statutes that authorize the use of deadly force.
Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, channeled her grief into a purpose. In an essay this month titled “Trayvon: Ten Years Later,” Fulton wrote that her first objective following the death of her son on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, was to endorse the repeal of so-called stand your ground laws.
But the formation of a statewide task force on the issue resulted in no change to the legislation, which was initially passed in 2005 and remains one of the broadest of its kind in the country.
“Though we did not succeed, we will be better prepared for the next time,” Fulton wrote in her essay. “Trust, there will be a next time.”
Gun control advocates and racial justice activists are preparing for that time now, announcing this week the formation of a national task force of state legislators that will try again: push for the repeal of “stand your ground” laws — or as they call them, “shoot first” laws — and block additional states from approving such legislation.
At least 28 states have some form of a self-defense law that does not require a person to retreat from an attacker if they are in a place lawfully, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At that point, they may be allowed to “stand your ground” with force, including deadly force, if they believe they are in imminent threat of being harmed or killed.
Some of those states, including Florida, go further, allowing people declaring a “stand your ground” defense to claim immunity from legal action by putting the burden on prosecutors to prove that person was unjustified in using force. Gun lobbyists, including the National Rifle Association, have championed the expanse of the law.
“Laws that give people the right to seek out dangerous situations, to shoot first and ask questions later, do not make our families more safe,” said Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., who introduced the task force, which is supported by gun advocacy groups Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action.
McBath, whose 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was killed nine months after Martin in a shooting that tested Florida’s “stand your ground” law, said the issue is at a critical juncture.
While the three white men convicted in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man in Georgia who was fatally shot as he was pursued in February 2020, were also found guilty this week of federal hate crimes, Republican lawmakers in the state are advancing a bill that would eliminate the need for a permit to conceal and carry a gun.
The potential loosening of restrictions feels like a setback for gun safety advocates who saw Georgia’s repeal last year of a citizen’s arrest law predating the Civil War as a step forward in the wake of Arbery’s death. The white men accused of killing Arbery, who had been jogging in their neighborhood, said he grabbed for one of their firearms when they confronted him, and two of their lawyers at trial unsuccessfully argued they needed to shoot him in self-defense.
Critics of “stand your ground” say the law is making some believe they have the authority to use deadly force or insert themselves in potentially dangerous scenarios, and at worst, it encourages vigilantism.
Academics have also studied how race may be a factor in how “stand your ground” laws are implemented and who’s arrested. A 2015 study in the journal Social Science and Medicine found that a person charged in such cases is twice as likely to be convicted if they killed a white person as opposed to a person of color.
But the laws are still gaining ground. In Hawaii, where people have a duty to retreat except in their home or workplace, a bill is under consideration that would expand the places where people don’t have to first withdraw.
“We want to protect law-abiding citizens and allow them to defend themselves, whether they use a potato peeler or a rifle, it doesn’t matter to me,” state Rep. Bob McDermott, a Republican, said during a hearing this month.
Cynthia Ward, a law professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia who has studied the language of “stand your ground” nationally, said the growth of such laws across the country, where states like Ohio and North Dakota recently expanded aspects of it, comes at a precarious time when much of the country is at odds over personal liberties and reports about random attacks have gripped some cities.
“Right now, in the context of widespread public concern about the rise in violent crime in some of our cities, I am not surprised to see the issue surfacing again,” Ward said.
But critics also question whether “stand your ground” has had the intended effect of deterring further crime and reducing violence, which supporters cite as reasons for the law.
A peer-reviewed study released this week in JAMA Network Open found that “stand your ground” is associated with more firearm deaths — as many as 700 additional homicides a year.
The authors concluded that those were “deaths that could potentially have been avoided.”
Lars Dalseide, a spokesman for the NRA, called the study “biased” against “those who oppose the fundamental right to self-defense by law-abiding citizens.”
“Stand Your Ground laws give crime victims a choice in how to best respond when facing a lethal attack without having to determine if retreating is feasible in that split-second they’re forced into making a life-saving decision,” Dalseide said in an email.
Reflecting on the 10-year anniversary of her son’s death, Fulton told NBC News that more work needs to be done to ensure people aren’t needlessly losing their lives and that those who take a life can also be held accountable.
“I’m not just talking about police officers,” she said. “I’m also talking about civilians, vigilantes, people who take the law into their own hands. I’m talking about neighborhood watch captains.”
George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, had claimed self-defense when he fatally shot Martin, a 17-year-old high school student who had been walking through the gated community where his father was staying.
Zimmerman was later charged with murder, but acquitted. His attorneys did not use “stand your ground” as a defense at trial, but the law still became a flashpoint.
The image of Martin in a hoodie and carrying a pack of Skittles, which he had gone out to buy before he was killed, have remained enduring symbols of a movement that also inspired the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
Fulton said there’s too much of a “grey area” with “stand your ground,” where investigators are challenged with determining who was the actual aggressor and who may have been the “victim,” that it hasn’t stopped and won’t prevent more deadly incidents.
“I want people to know that there are so many other Trayvon Martins that they don’t know, that they haven’t said their names,” she added, “and that this continues to happen.”