Everyone’s talking about the verdict in the George Zimmerman case; everyone’s got an opinion. I’m no legal expert, so I’ll just talk about what I see in terms of the psychology when it comes to Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, and how I believe that contributes to the tragedy that day.
Many states have some form of the Stand Your Ground Law, which basically says that a person can justifiably use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief in a threat, without an obligation to retreat first.
While Zimmerman’s attorney did not invoke the Stand Your Ground Law specifically, it impacted the instructions the jurors were given in terms of how to classify his actions–essentially, it meant that if there had been no such law, Zimmerman could have been seen as the aggressor. That could have swung the outcome of the case.
But as I said, I don’t want to dwell on the legal side. My interest and expertise is in psychology. Legal analysts can debate how significant Stand Your Ground was in the case. What I’m concerned about is how it affects individual psychology, and people’s sense of entitlement to use their firearms in situations where direct conflict could have been avoided.
We’re in a society where we digest violence daily, often from a very young age. Violence can seem “cooler” than non-violence. Teenagers may learn to assert themselves through verbal and physical aggression.
As adults, we have the obligation to try to teach children and teenagers to defend themselves with an assertiveness that doesn’t violate others, and by physical means only when necessary. The Stand Your Ground Law extends the idea of when it is necessary. What does that mean for what we teach our children?
George Zimmerman was an adult who fatally shot a teenager. While the prosecution didn’t put on a great case, it seemed clear that Zimmerman was following Trayvon. That meant that retreat was possible–he could have stopped following the teenager he had racially profiled–and the death could have been avoided.
As an adult, what was Zimmerman’s mindset? I can’t know what it was during the altercation and ensuing killing. But I can speculate as to what it was on that day, and the days prior. It was a mindset of entitlement: I have a right to defend–not just my physical person when under unavoidable attack, but I have the right to defend my whole neighborhood from what I perceive as a threat.
In this case, his perception was erroneous. Trayvon Martin was not there to commit a criminal act. And Zimmerman was not there to retreat. The law said he didn’t have to.
How would things have played out differently if Zimmerman did not see himself as having protection under the law? From a psychological perspective, it would reduce his sense of entitlement. He would have had to proceed knowing that the law was not on his side; he would not feel the kind of self-righteousness that allowed him to continue following Trayvon. He would have to think twice, and question himself.
That might have made the difference between Trayvon Martin living and dying. A law that emboldens people to act rather than react, to move forward rather than backing away, has a pernicious psychological effect.
The Stand Your Ground Law has been brought back into mainstream debate since the verdict, and I’m hoping it stays there for reconsideration. We, as a society, have to consider whether it promotes our value, whether it makes us safer or encourages vigilantism. We need to consider whether the benefits outweigh the cost.
Handgun image available from Shutterstock.