In a charge often led by the National Rifle Association, more than 30 states have adopted some form of Stand Your Ground law (Connecticut not among them), with Florida's law having a particular hankering for validating Wild West-style justice.
A prominent trial lawyer, speaking to a television news crew, had this to say a few weeks ago about the Florida law: "Other people call it the license to murder statute because it doesn't require actions to avoid the confrontation."
That lawyer, Mark O'Mara, is now defending George Zimmerman, the Sanford, Fla., man arrested on a second-degree murder charge last week for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26. That Mr. Zimmerman, 28, fatally shot the unarmed 17-year-old is beyond dispute. The legal issue is whether the Stand Your Ground law gave him the license to do so.
Connecticut is among the minority of states where common sense continues to prevail, perhaps because the NRA lobby is weaker here than elsewhere. In states with larger numbers of hunters, lawmakers live in fear of not achieving an "A" grade from the NRA, and that means backing these Stand Your Ground laws.
Connecticut continues to follow the legal tradition of self-defense that worked for generations. If an assailant confronts an individual and presents a credible threat from which there is no plausible means to avoid the altercation, self-defense is justified. Stand Your Ground laws remove the obligation to try to avoid the confrontation. Just start firing.
Whether this is enough to spring Mr. Zimmerman is not yet clear. That it is even a possibility is outrageous. According to the arrest affidavit, Mr. Zimmerman followed the teenager through the gated neighborhood, convinced for some reason that he must be up to something. If such a scenario can lead to the justified homicide of an unarmed teenager is beyond troubling; it is an invitation to legalized vigilantism.
If the prosecutors have it right, even the Stand Your Ground law will not justify Mr. Zimmerman's actions, but that determination remains to be made, either by a judge during pretrial proceedings or by a jury.
While it is doubtful that states will roll back such laws, perhaps legislatures can at least establish some reasonable boundaries. Many states, for example, provide only more leeway for acting in self-defense, without an obligation to flee, during a home invasion. While this still can invite overreaction (don't forget the keys and climb through a window), at least those laws are grounded in some logic. Florida, on the other hand, takes the shoot-first policy into the streets.
The case has also again raised the issue of racial profiling. Was Trayvon Martin pursued and killed because he was a young black man wearing a hooded sweatshirt? It is impossible to know what was in Mr. Zimmerman's head. It appears Mr. Zimmerman was an overzealous neighborhood watch organizer emboldened by a state law inviting aggressive behavior in the name of security. He may well have been ready to pursue anyone that he judged suspicious for whatever reason, regardless of race or ethnicity.
The failure of police to make a quick arrest led to nationwide protests. Prosecutor Angela Corey, in announcing the arrest Wednesday, said the investigation process simply took time. But we can't help wondering whether this case would have been forgotten, with no arrest, if not for the public outcry.