PUBLISHER'S NOTEBOOK: Unsettled issues regarding race
Tuesday, April 03, 2012 7:32 AM
The fallout from the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida shows that - despite electing a black president - our country still has many unsettled issues regarding race. Rallies are taking place across the country as many claim that racism was a factor in the Feb. 26 shooting by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
The U.S. Justice Department could bring a hate crime charge against the man if there is sufficient evidence that the slaying was motivated by racial bias. However, proving racial hatred is often a difficult task because if there is no obvious evidence, prosecutors have to essentially read the mind of the shooter.
It's obvious that fear was a factor. Residents of a gated community would seem to fear something or they wouldn't choose to live in a residential area surrounded by gates. There had been reports of crime recently and a stranger lurking in the community would add to that fear. Whether the response by Zimmerman is appropriate to that fear can easily be argued by many people. Whether race played a part can only be answered by Zimmerman, who, perhaps, hasn't even probed the depths of his mind to figure out if, or how much, the issue of race played a part in his reaction.
The more interesting question for Minnesotans, however, is how much Florida's "stand your ground" law played a part in the shooting. Florida was the first state to pass such a law that allows citizens to use deadly force if they feel threatened, even if the incident is outside the home.
Critics call it a "shoot first" law, while the NRA, which lobbied for the law in the many states that have since passed similar bills, refers to it as "vital self-defense legislation."
The Minnesota Legislature considered a bill based on the Florida law earlier this year. The proposal would have allowed people in Minnesota who feel threatened outside their home to use deadly force rather than attempt to retreat first before taking action as is required under current law.
The law is based on the old law known as the Castle Doctrine, which holds the right of self-defense is accepted in one's home. The stand your ground law, though, is expanded to establish this right to venues beyond a home, allowing citizens to use deadly force - free from prosecution or civil liability - if they reasonably believe their safety is threatened in a public setting, such as a park or street.
Whether Florida's law emboldened Zimmerman to use the gun he had for protection away from his home in a manner that he felt was appropriate can only be answered by Zimmerman. However, there is little doubt that the Florida law is a factor in shielding Zimmerman from charges.
In states such as Minnesota without the law, police assess whether a reasonable person would have resorted to the level of violence used to fend off an attack. In Florida, the law protects the individual from criminal charges if he asserts he had a reasonable fear of grave harm. That person isn't responsible to consider other ways to avoid harm.
The Minnesota Legislature passed stand your ground legislation earlier this year, but Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed it, ironically, the day before the Florida shooting gained so much attention.
It would seem to be a dead issue in Minnesota now, but then there was significant opposition at the time the bill was brought up. The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association as well as other law enforcement opposed the legislation.
Even with the controversy in Florida, that hasn't stopped similar bills to get attention in other states. For example, the legislation is just now being considered by Alaska officials.
That would indicate the issue may come before Minnesota legislators again next year, perhaps, when the publicity from the Trayvon Martin shooting has subsided. Our legislators shouldn't have such a short attention span.
Rarely does a real-life incident shine a light on the effects of abstract legislation. This is a lesson that should provide a lasting education for all our elected officials.