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Do Now #27: When Is It OK To Defend Yourself?

| April 6, 2012 | 52 Comments
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photo by: werthmedia/flickr


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Do Now

Should you have the legal right to use force – even deadly force if it seems necessary – as self-defense in reaction to what you may perceive as a serious threat?

Introduction

On February 26, 2012, an unarmed 17-year-old African American male named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida by a 28-year-old volunteer community watch coordinator named George Zimmerman. Martin had been walking from a convenience store when he was spotted by Zimmerman, who contacted the local police department to reporting the youth’s allegedly suspicious behavior. Shortly thereafter, there was a confrontation between the two that ended with Zimmerman fatally shooting Martin. When the police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman told them that he acted in self-defense. He was handcuffed and brought into custody, but the police did not actually formally arrest him, saying they didn’t find sufficient evidence to contradict his assertion of self-defense, a claim supported by the state attorney’s office.

Like a number of other states, including California, Florida has a statewide stand-your-ground law, which allows citizens in public spaces to use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to first back down or retreat. Stand-your-ground can serve as a defense or immunity to criminal charges or civil suit.

Florida, though, has one of the boldest versions of this law, allowing citizens in public spaces to lawfully use deadly force if “he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”

While Zimmerman (who is half white and half Latino), claims that he felt seriously threatened by Martin, and thus acted lawfully, the issue has generated major criticism of Florida’s stand-your-ground law. It has also ignited significant racial tensions, with civil rights advocates claiming that the incident was blatantly racially motivated. In protests that have since taken place in cities around the country, many have expressed outrage over Florida’s law and the way the case has been handled by the Sanford police department and the state attorney’s office. There are ongoing demands for a full criminal prosecution of Zimmerman, and wider investigation into the law itself.

Resource

Watch Killing of Fla. Teen Sheds Light on State’s Law on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

PBS NewsHour segment Killing of Fla. Teen Sheds Light on State’s Law – Mar. 19, 2012
Demonstrators gathered in Sanford, Fla. Monday to demand the arrest of the neighborhood watch member who shot an unarmed black teenager, after 911 calls from the shooting were released. Ray Suarez and The Miami Herald’s Frances Robles discuss why a Florida law could make filing charges against Zimmerman more difficult.

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Category: Do Now, Do Now: Government and Civics

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About the Author ()

Matthew Green runs KQED’s News Education Project, a new online resource for educators and the general public to help explain the news. The project lives at kqed.org/lowdown.
  • Maria

    What I think of this is that it depends on what kind of way is it cause if it is a threating way then it could but it will still be bad that you do this cause you could just call the police and not do anything to the person.

  • Maria

    What I think of this is that it depends on what kind of way is it cause if it is a threating way then it could but it will still be bad that you do this cause you could just call the police and not do anything to the person.

  • http://terrygamez.weebly.com Terry

    I think that it is all relative to the situation. We can’t give a sure answer to the use of self defense without looking into the case more. I know, it sucks, because you don’t want to investigate. However, if we just base the entire concept of self defense on a single law, unjust convictions will probably occur.

  • http://terrygamez.weebly.com Terry

    I think that it is all relative to the situation. We can’t give a sure answer to the use of self defense without looking into the case more. I know, it sucks, because you don’t want to investigate. However, if we just base the entire concept of self defense on a single law, unjust convictions will probably occur.

  • Cheyenne Whitney

    I believe that yes you should be able to use force, even deadly force, if you believe that you need to in self-defense. However, I feel that the terms of ‘in self-defense’ are too loosely defined. The case with this young man was in no shape or form for self defense.

  • Cheyenne Whitney

    I believe that yes you should be able to use force, even deadly force, if you believe that you need to in self-defense. However, I feel that the terms of ‘in self-defense’ are too loosely defined. The case with this young man was in no shape or form for self defense.

  • Kenlee

    Yes, you should be able to use force, but I think that deadly force is a little too much because different people may perceive threats differently.

  • Kenlee

    Yes, you should be able to use force, but I think that deadly force is a little too much because different people may perceive threats differently.

  • paola

    I think that people should have some type of specific type of meaning of a dangerous threat, because everyone has a diffrent deffinition of it and I think this was just an excuse to do a hate crime. Maybe if we just orginized ourself’s to create a certain type of meaning of threat, this issue would not have happened in the first place.

  • paola

    I think that people should have some type of specific type of meaning of a dangerous threat, because everyone has a diffrent deffinition of it and I think this was just an excuse to do a hate crime. Maybe if we just orginized ourself’s to create a certain type of meaning of threat, this issue would not have happened in the first place.

  • Dante Gonzalez

    I think you should be allowed to use deadly force if your being threatened but if your not threatened you shouldn’t use deadly force because there not doing anything to you.

  • Dante Gonzalez

    I think you should be allowed to use deadly force if your being threatened but if your not threatened you shouldn’t use deadly force because there not doing anything to you.

  • Bradley Erickson

    I think that you should have the right to use force,even deadly force if necessary, but only if the situation requires that you do. This is an interesting topic that can be taken so many ways and it has a fine line to walk on. For example, the Zimmerman shooting, it sounds like there wasn’t a motive to use force, as well as Trayvon Martin wasn’t armed. To me I don’t think that force was necessary. But in my overall opinion, in self defense and in a life threatening situation.

  • Bradley Erickson

    I think that you should have the right to use force,even deadly force if necessary, but only if the situation requires that you do. This is an interesting topic that can be taken so many ways and it has a fine line to walk on. For example, the Zimmerman shooting, it sounds like there wasn’t a motive to use force, as well as Trayvon Martin wasn’t armed. To me I don’t think that force was necessary. But in my overall opinion, in self defense and in a life threatening situation.

  • Naomi

    You should be able to have force in a life threatening situation but death should be the last resort. There are different methods for self defense and you could always try to contact the authority and allow for them to handle the situation. Each situation offers different measures and unless it’s neccessary for death then it shouldn’t be the first option.

  • Naomi

    You should be able to have force in a life threatening situation but death should be the last resort. There are different methods for self defense and you could always try to contact the authority and allow for them to handle the situation. Each situation offers different measures and unless it’s neccessary for death then it shouldn’t be the first option.

  • Tyle

    Is there an update to this video?

  • Tyle

    Is there an update to this video?

  • Aliyah Stewart

    I think it’s very sad that Treyvon got shot and killed. I don’t think Zimmerman had the right to shoot because Treyvon didn’t even had a weapon. Plus Zimmerman should have stop following him when the police stop.

  • Aliyah Stewart

    I think it’s very sad that Treyvon got shot and killed. I don’t think Zimmerman had the right to shoot because Treyvon didn’t even had a weapon. Plus Zimmerman should have stop following him when the police stop.

  • Thomas Bouwer

    I think that this is truly awful that it is even being questioned that Zimmerman is a murderer.
    Self Defense? Yes. Murder? Definitely not. Stand your ground needs to change.

  • Thomas Bouwer

    I think that this is truly awful that it is even being questioned that Zimmerman is a murderer.
    Self Defense? Yes. Murder? Definitely not. Stand your ground needs to change.

  • carson kerins

    this video was pretty interesting because it has to do with lots of different things like racisim and laws and what not.

  • carson kerins

    this video was pretty interesting because it has to do with lots of different things like racisim and laws and what not.

  • Maria

    I think the only time that using a deadly weapon is absolutely necessary when you are in a life threatening situation. If the person isn’t doing anything to you then it is not your responsibility to put someone else’s life in your hands. If it is out on the street then you can’t just shoot somebody because of how they look, someone being in your home is something else if you are being robbed than it makes sense to use self defense.

  • Maria

    I think the only time that using a deadly weapon is absolutely necessary when you are in a life threatening situation. If the person isn’t doing anything to you then it is not your responsibility to put someone else’s life in your hands. If it is out on the street then you can’t just shoot somebody because of how they look, someone being in your home is something else if you are being robbed than it makes sense to use self defense.

  • Celeste Wynn

    I believe it is not okay to use a gun when you perceive something as dangerous. I Think when someone is in your house, and really trying to murder you, then yeah, I guess its your choice. But if your walking down the street and you think “oh someones looks suspicious, ill pull out my gun if he/she comes any closer” then I think that’s not okay.

  • Celeste Wynn

    I believe it is not okay to use a gun when you perceive something as dangerous. I Think when someone is in your house, and really trying to murder you, then yeah, I guess its your choice. But if your walking down the street and you think “oh someones looks suspicious, ill pull out my gun if he/she comes any closer” then I think that’s not okay.

  • Gage

    Is it self defence if you are following someone else

  • Gage

    Is it self defence if you are following someone else

  • Yumiko

    Well I think that that Zimmerman should be going to jail for murder, because there was no reason at all to shot the 17 year old teenager. If Martin would have actually “attacked” Zimmerman it would have been okay to defend himself, but that didnt happen. If martin was white, he wouldnt have been shot. This is clearly racist.

  • Yumiko

    Well I think that that Zimmerman should be going to jail for murder, because there was no reason at all to shot the 17 year old teenager. If Martin would have actually “attacked” Zimmerman it would have been okay to defend himself, but that didnt happen. If martin was white, he wouldnt have been shot. This is clearly racist.

  • Matthew Bindewald

    I think this killing was unprovoked and unjust.

  • Matthew Bindewald

    I think this killing was unprovoked and unjust.

  • ottmar navarrete

    i think there he should have had some sort of specific reason why he committed this ,however,the victim or the suspect could have done something that no witness have noticed.

  • ottmar navarrete

    i think there he should have had some sort of specific reason why he committed this ,however,the victim or the suspect could have done something that no witness have noticed.

  • Manon

    I think that this was very sad and i hope that this kid gets justice. I feel very bad for his family and friends. RIP

  • Manon

    I think that this was very sad and i hope that this kid gets justice. I feel very bad for his family and friends. RIP

  • Vivian O.

    I think that this is a sad tragedy that may or may not be related to racial discrimination. If it does, then we can see that even though America had passed the segregation period, there’s still work to be done.

  • Vivian O.

    I think that this is a sad tragedy that may or may not be related to racial discrimination. If it does, then we can see that even though America had passed the segregation period, there’s still work to be done.

  • ethan

    I beleive you should be abled to use deadly force but only if you have a reason to think your life is in danger.

  • ethan

    I beleive you should be abled to use deadly force but only if you have a reason to think your life is in danger.

  • Ethan

    I think that George Zimmerman should have been arrested because there clearly wasn’t an obvious reason or self-defense needed to kill him. However, I do not necessarily think Zimmerman was being a racist, and I think it is more that he was overly suspicious of all young teens, as he had been suspicious of many people before.

  • Ethan

    I think that George Zimmerman should have been arrested because there clearly wasn’t an obvious reason or self-defense needed to kill him. However, I do not necessarily think Zimmerman was being a racist, and I think it is more that he was overly suspicious of all young teens, as he had been suspicious of many people before.

  • Emily Owens And Kimi Pie

    This is a racial hate crime. This man should go to prison no parole. He committed a crime, he SHOULD do the time. He openly shot an innocent young man at point blank. If the case were reversed where a black male shot a white male that male would be locked up. Where’s the justice? Where’s the self defense? Martin had no drugs on possession or even in his system. He didn’t have any weapon. The police are protecting the murderer, who should be locked up. What type of message does this send to the world? If you see somebody you don’t know walking down your sidewalk you have the right to shoot him? It’s an open and close case. Zimmerman had NO reason what so ever to pull his gun out. And my question is why was he caring a gun to begin with? Why shoot with out asking questions? He didn’t even think before he shot his gun. He can’t play the hero because he isn’t one. He tries to help and I will give him credit for that yet hes only making things worse. Use your voice don’t hide behind a gun. What’s Treyvon going to do? Hit you with his skittles? No! Zimmerman had No threat at all, If Martin drew a gun (which he DIDN’T) Yes I can see how using force would play in, but there wasn’t any threat, he was walking home, not about to rob a home. It’s simple, he’s wrong. He committed a crime and he should go to jail.

  • Emily Owens And Kimi Pie

    This is a racial hate crime. This man should go to prison no parole. He committed a crime, he SHOULD do the time. He openly shot an innocent young man at point blank. If the case were reversed where a black male shot a white male that male would be locked up. Where’s the justice? Where’s the self defense? Martin had no drugs on possession or even in his system. He didn’t have any weapon. The police are protecting the murderer, who should be locked up. What type of message does this send to the world? If you see somebody you don’t know walking down your sidewalk you have the right to shoot him? It’s an open and close case. Zimmerman had NO reason what so ever to pull his gun out. And my question is why was he caring a gun to begin with? Why shoot with out asking questions? He didn’t even think before he shot his gun. He can’t play the hero because he isn’t one. He tries to help and I will give him credit for that yet hes only making things worse. Use your voice don’t hide behind a gun. What’s Treyvon going to do? Hit you with his skittles? No! Zimmerman had No threat at all, If Martin drew a gun (which he DIDN’T) Yes I can see how using force would play in, but there wasn’t any threat, he was walking home, not about to rob a home. It’s simple, he’s wrong. He committed a crime and he should go to jail.

  • Dallas Uhrenholt

    This, was pointless, the trayvon martin case has already been settled and I can’t see a reason to do this.

  • Dallas Uhrenholt

    This, was pointless, the trayvon martin case has already been settled and I can’t see a reason to do this.

  • http://education.kqed.org/edspace/2012/04/06/do-now-27-when-is-it-ok-to-defend-yourself/ Carmen Vega

    I think George Zimmerman should have been put into jail immediately because he had no right to shoot Trayvon Martin. Trayvon was an innocent, unarmed seventeen year old boy who was just walking home to get candy for his brother. He should have kept calm and note the police for this person and to watch out.

  • http://education.kqed.org/edspace/2012/04/06/do-now-27-when-is-it-ok-to-defend-yourself/ Carmen Vega

    I think George Zimmerman should have been put into jail immediately because he had no right to shoot Trayvon Martin. Trayvon was an innocent, unarmed seventeen year old boy who was just walking home to get candy for his brother. He should have kept calm and note the police for this person and to watch out.

  • Myra

    i think the law is alright but not when it is exaggerated like that. the law should be enforced but not so harshly. in this case people are right to stand up for what they believe is right, and the police should look more into it so they can do whats right.

  • Myra

    i think the law is alright but not when it is exaggerated like that. the law should be enforced but not so harshly. in this case people are right to stand up for what they believe is right, and the police should look more into it so they can do whats right.