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The Globe and Mail

Killing of black Florida teen puts 'Stand Your Ground' law on trial

In this undated family photo, Trayvon Martin poses for a family photo. The family of the black teenager fatally shot by a white neighborhood watch volunteer arrived at Sanford City Hall Friday evening March 16, 2012 to listen to recordings of 911 calls police previously refused to release.

Handout/Martin Family photos/AP/Handout/Martin Family photos/AP

The gated community where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed was named The Retreat at Twin Lakes. But there was no retreat and no longer any legal need to back off on Feb 26 when George Zimmerman, 28, a gun-toting crime-watch volunteer followed, confronted and eventually shot the 17-year-old.

And no charge either because a new Florida law swept aside the limits of a centuries-old legal principle that "an Englishman's home is his castle" that defined when a citizen could kill another rather than retreat from a confrontation.

Gov. Jeb Bush, the brother of then President George W. Bush, changed all that for Floridians in 2005 when he signed a controversial "Stand Your Ground" law.

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If the fevered fears of critics who warned of gun battles at check-out counters and showdowns in parks haven't been realized, the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a gun-toting, crime watch volunteer has put the law on public trial.

The so-called 'castle doctrine,' long part of English common law and fundamental to key elements of the U.S. Constitution includes not only a 'right to defend' but also corresponding 'duty to retreat.'

In other words, a citizen facing a threat in his home can use deadly force in self-defence. But the same right of self defence – at least until Florida's Stand Your Ground law – didn't apply in public spaces.

Backed by the powerful National Rifle Association and passed overwhelmingly by Florida's legislature, the 'Stand Your Ground' law made it legal for citizens to use lethal force in self-defence in almost all public spaces. They no longer had to back off from confrontations. There was no 'obligation to retreat' from confrontation.

Seventeen other states have since passed similar laws.

Many of them, like Florida, also permit citizens to carry concealed handguns. Mr. Zimmerman had just such a permit and was packing a powerful, 9mm Kel-Tec semi-automatic pistol as he patrolled The Retreat at Twin Lakes north of Orlando.

And he told police he acted in self-defence, fearing for his life.

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Under Stand Your Ground, the police said they had no grounds to arrest him and no evidence to challenge his version of events. That sparked what has now become a national furore with accusations of racial bias. After weeks of growing outrage, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would investigate the case.

But Mr. Martin's death wasn't the first to bring the sweeping shift in citizens' rights to wield lethal force into view.

The Orlando Sentinel cited a handful. "In 2010 an unarmed man was shot and killed at a park near Tampa in a dispute over skateboarding rules. The victim's 10-year-old daughter watched her father die. A judge is currently considering whether the shooter merely stood his ground. In 2008, a 15-year-old boy was killed during a shootout between two gangs in Tallahassee. Nobody was held accountable for the crime because a judge, citing the law, dismissed the charges. And in January, a former Broward County sheriff's deputy shot and wounded a homeless man inside a Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop in Miami Lakes. He said the man was threatening him and his family. Police said charges were unlikely in that case as well."

The individual cases are disturbing but it's the stunning increase in the number of lawful citizen killings that underscores just how dramatically Stand Your Ground has changed the calculus of when and where pulling a trigger is legal

In the five years before the law was passed, citizen killings averaged 13 annually in Florida. In the five years after the law was passed, citizens lawfully killed others 36 times a year. In 2009 there was 45 such killings.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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