How are Florida’s self-defense and “stand your ground” laws key to this case?
Zimmerman may have benefited from some of the broadest firearms and self-defense regulations in the nation. In 1987, then-Gov. Bob Martinez (R) signed Florida’s concealed-carry provision into law, which “liberalized the restrictions that previously hindered the citizens of Florida from obtaining concealed weapons permits,” according to one legal analyst. This trendsetting “shall-issue" statute triggered a wave of gun-carry laws in other states. (Critics said at the time that Florida would become “Dodge City.”) Permit holders are also exempted from the mandatory state waiting period on handgun purchases.
Even though felons and other violent offenders are barred from getting a weapons permit, a 2007 investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that licenses had been mistakenly issued to 1,400 felons and hundreds more applicants with warrants, domestic abuse injunctions, or gun violations. (More than 410,000 Floridians have been issued concealed weapons permits.) Since then, Florida also passed a law permitting residents to keep guns in their cars at work, against employers’ wishes. The state also nearly allowed guns on college campuses last year, until an influential Republican lawmaker fought the bill after his close friend’s daughter was killed by an AK-47 brandished at a Florida State University fraternity party.
Florida also makes it easy to plead self-defense in a killing. Under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, the state in 2005 passed a broad “stand your ground" law, which allows Florida residents to use deadly force against a threat without attempting to back down from the situation. (More stringent self-defense laws state that gun owners have "a duty to retreat" before resorting to killing.) In championing the law, former NRA president and longtime Florida gun lobbyist Marion Hammer said: “Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding-heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you’re attacked, you’re supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property.”
Again, the Sunshine State was the trendsetter: 17 states have since passed “stand your ground” laws, which critics call a “license to kill" or a "shoot first" law. The law has been unpopular with law enforcement officers in Florida, since it makes it much more difficult to charge shooters with a crime and has regularly confounded juries in murder cases; many Orlando-area cops reportedly have given up investigating “self-defense” cases as a result, referring them to the overloaded state Attorney’s Office for action. A 2010 study by the Tampa Bay Times found that “justifiable homicides” had tripled in the state since the law went into effect.
Why is the history of the Sanford Police Department in question?
Sanford PD’s officers have suffered a series of public missteps in recent years, according to local reporters. In 2006 two private security guards—the son of a Sanford police officer, and a volunteer for the department—killed a black teen with a single gunshot in his back. Even though they admitted to never identifying themselves, the guards were released without charges. In 2009, after an assailant allegedly attempted to rape a child in her home, the department was called to task for sitting on the suspect’s fingerprints, delaying identification and pursuit of the attacker.
Perhaps the most significant incident occurred in late 2010: Justin Collison, the son of a Sanford PD lieutenant, sucker-punched a homeless black man outside a bar, and officers on the scene released Collison without charges. He eventually surrendered after video of the incident materialized online. The police chief at the time was ultimately forced into retirement. “Bottom line, we didn’t do our job that night,” a Police Department representative told WFTV of the incident. The TV station later learned that the Sanford patrol sergeant in charge on the night of Collison’s assault, Anthony Raimondo, was also the first supervisor on the scene of Trayvon Martin’s shooting death.
As a result of these incidents and their initial handling of Martin’s death, the Sanford Police Department has been under increased scrutiny. Martin’s parents have suggested they might call for Police Chief Bill Lee to resign.