Trayvon, Zimmerman, & Self Defence

The Trayvon Martin case in the US has raised a lot of emotions on all sides of the political spectrum, with arguments about racial profiling, gun control, the right of self-defence and the amount of force that one should be permitted to use in self-defence.

Many argue that no-one should legally be able to carry firearms in the US. For them the argument is simple. Guns kill people, therefore no-one should be allowed to own them or use them in self-defence. This argument conveniently ignores the fact that criminals, by their very nature, are not likely to obey a law that makes the carrying of a weapon illegal. It also ignores the clear statistical evidence that tough gun control does not lead to reduced murder rates (quite the opposite in many cases). To take an example, Chicago has some of the toughest gun control laws in the US and private handgun ownership is all but prohibited. Chicago also has an annual murder rate higher than the total number of UK personnel killed on operations in Afghanistan since 2001. More people murdered in a year than the UK has lost in a war over more than a decade. The entire State of Texas, which has a much more relaxed attitude towards firearm ownership, had 1,246 murders in 2008. Chicago alone – one city – had 513 murders in the same period.

Where guns are legally carried, either by a citizen or law enforcement, then debate turns to when the gun should be used and the level of force that one should be permitted to use. Some people call for attackers to be shot in the leg or for guns to be shot out of hands, but they have clearly been watching too many action films. In reality when one is shooting in a real-world situation involving a violent or potentially violent confrontation one aims for the largest possible area to maximise the chances of actually hitting the target. This is not only basic marksmanship but also common sense. Unfortunately in the case of the human body, the largest possible target is the torso, which happens to contain all but one of the body’s vital organs and makes the chances of someone being killed in a shooting very high indeed. One must always treat the discharge of a firearm during a confrontation as an escalation to potentially deadly force; therefore the circumstances in which firearms are used are what must be closely scrutinised in situations like the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Generally speaking, it is widely accepted that the use of deadly force is only justified in a situation where one believes that their life or the lives of others are immediately threatened. With that in mind, one can see why someone such as the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin would be arrested for shooting and killing a burglar on his property. In his case, the burglars were running away and his life was not immediately threatened, yet he shot them both. One burglar was killed and the other wounded. There is an argument for leniency on the grounds that they were burgling his property at the time, however in reality the two men were running away. He had successfully deterred them and therefore shooting them in the back and killing one of them cannot be justified as self-defence. Had he shot them while they were inside his farm then it would be a different matter entirely, and in my view had Tony Martin shot them while they were inside his property then his use of force would have been entirely justified.

In the Zimmerman case a lot has been made of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows the use of deadly force if one withdraws from a threat, issues a clear challenge and the assailant continues to advance. George Zimmerman shot George_Zimmerman_front_of_headTrayvon Martin during a fight, so “Stand Your Ground” did not apply. Zimmerman maintains that Martin had pinned him to the ground and was beating his head against the concrete when he drew his gun and opened fire, and the medical evidence provided in court about both the gunshot wound to Trayvon Martin and his own injuries supports this statement. Martin’s defenders argue that the shooting was unjustified because Zimmerman was armed and Martin wasn’t, but this is irrelevant. There are many scenarios where the use of deadly force against an unarmed individual is justified. One recent example was a man in Miami caught literally eating the face off of a homeless guy. He was unarmed, but there was a clear danger to the life of the victim, so the police shot and killed him. Likewise, if a police officer or an armed citizen in the US was to come across an assault in progress when an unarmed individual is literally stamping their victim to death, the use of deadly force to stop that attack would be entirely justified. If Zimmerman felt that his life was in danger when Trayvon Martin pinned him to the ground and slammed his head into the concrete then under Florida law he is justified in using deadly force in self-defence. What started the fight is irrelevant and has no bearing on the case, as challenging someone who you believe to be acting suspiciously is not a crime. Once the fight started, Zimmerman would not have been able to mentally walk through the various permutations and consequences of what he could or could not do. The only things he would be thinking about are his own safety and the security of his weapon. This is a concern for anyone who legally carries a gun and particularly law enforcement; that if you are armed and someone attacks you then you have to do everything in your power to not only protect yourself but also to prevent your weapon(s) from falling into the wrong hands, and ultimately that includes the use of deadly force regardless of whether your attacker is armed.

The most shocking element of the whole case for me is not that Trayvon Martin was killed or that Zimmerman was acquitted. It is the fact that it has been turned into an issue about race and that there are high profile individuals such as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and even the Attorney General Eric Holder saying that justice has not been done. Justice has been done. The State of Florida had to prove Zimmerman guilty and they failed to do so. Zimmerman was and remains innocent of all the charges laid against him, but otherwise sensible people are suggesting that Zimmerman’s defence should have persuaded him to plead guilty to manslaughter in order to prevent any possible race relations issues or political headaches. The whole idea of suggesting someone plead guilty to a crime in order to make life a bit easier for politicians is abhorrent, as is the suggestion that his defence team had a responsibility to persuade him to do it. If Zimmerman had made this plea then he would have become a political prisoner, not a criminal prisoner, and the US justice system would be no better than the show trials of the USSR. If that weren’t bad enough, the Attorney General has announced that the Department of Justice are now looking to see if they can come up with something else to charge him with under civil rights laws. I find that so shocking that it is worth repeating. The Federal Government are unhappy that Zimmerman was acquitted, so they are trying to trump up some charges in order to try and convict him of something. Presumably anything will do, provided they can get a conviction. They have assumed his guilt, even though he has been found innocent, and are now trying to find something that they can charge him with to support that conclusion. Does that sound like the actions of a Government interested in justice or a Government interested in scoring political points from an emotive criminal case?


Only two people know the full story of what happened in Florida between Zimmerman and Martin, and tragically one of them is dead. It is very easy for people to make a judgement based on what they have seen in the news and their own prejudices. It doesn’t matter what we, the media or President Obama believe. What matters is the evidence, and in this case there was insufficient evidence to prove Zimmerman was guilty of anything other than acting in self-defence. Could he have done things differently? Probably, yes. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but no-one knows for a fact that it would have made any difference and Zimmerman is going to have to live with the fact that he has taken a life. Regardless, he has been acquitted by a jury and is an innocent man. It’s time for everyone to move on and work towards preventing this kind of tragedy from happening again.

Born in Yeovil, Bob Foster moved to the West Midlands, and following a brief spell in Dublin after university now lives in the North West. When pushed he describes himself as socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-military and anti-Government. His passions are American history, military history and defence policy, and when he doesn’t have his nose in a book on air power or a political memoir he can be found building model aircraft and warships. He works in the defence industry, but speaks for himself. He tweets as @Bobski1984


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