Push back against Stand Your Ground

Trayvon Martin
Trayvon Martin Miami Herald

On Feb. 5, my son Trayvon Martin would have been 22 years old. Just like every year, my family celebrated his birthday surrounded by friends and loved ones. And like every year since his death, I mourned my son, whose life was cut short by someone who decided to shoot first just because of the color of Trayvon’s skin.

Trayvon was only 17 years old when he was followed and killed by a stranger who believed he looked threatening. He was visiting with his father, walking home from the store, unarmed. He had just a packet of candy and a can of iced tea. This person killed my son for simply walking through his own neighborhood. He claimed that he was acting in self-defense, though Trayvon never approached him and he pursued my son before attacking him.

Our state’s laws allowed him to claim he was standing his ground, and it took the public crying out for police to even make an arrest. This is common in Stand Your Ground cases. The law is applied inconsistently and studies have found that it is difficult for police to enforce it. The American Bar Association found that Stand Your Ground laws can actually increase homicides, and that the policy carries an implicit bias against African Americans.

Trayvon was unarmed, like the majority of victims in these cases. Still, his killer was acquitted, and justice will never be served. He, and others like him, are free to continue shooting first knowing that the state may protect them if they simply claim self defense. Nothing will bring Trayvon back. He rests in power. But the justice my family and Trayvon deserved was lost.

My life has changed completely since I lost my son. I fight everyday against senseless gun violence and a criminal-justice system that actively works against African Americans and fails to give justice to men and women who look like Trayvon. I dedicate my life to fighting against laws like Stand Your Ground so that more mothers don’t experience the pain I know all too well.

This year, the Florida Legislature is considering strengthening the Stand Your Ground law to shift the burden of proof from the defendant to the prosecutor. If this law passes, anyone who claims self defense will not be required to prove it. Instead, the prosecution will have to prove the defendant did not act in self defense. This will not make our communities safer. It will incentivize criminals to use deadly force and say they were standing their ground, knowing there is a good chance they will walk free.

Instead of looking at the countless cases like Trayvon’s in which victims, especially minorities, were pursued and shot, some legislators are making it even easier for people to use fatal force against innocent victims. This bill will make it easier for people with a shoot-first mentality to claim self defense. It will make it easier to racially profile young people like Trayvon. And it will make it easier for mothers like me to lose their children to senseless gun violence.

This isn’t about being pro- or anti-gun. It’s about education and responsible gun ownership. This is about striking down reckless and dangerous laws like Stand Your Ground that disproportionately victimize people of color and make our communities less safe. It’s about holding our elected officials accountable and making sure they are working to prevent more senseless deaths, not increase them by strengthening an already irresponsible policy that has been proven ineffective.

We cannot allow politicians to continue acting in the interests of lobbyists and corporate donors. Our representatives must not make laws based on campaign donations or special interests. They must look at the facts, listen to the families of countless victims, and do what is right. Just like I have a responsibility to keep fighting for Trayvon, they have the responsibility to defend our safety, our communities, and our families.

I implore the state Legislature to stop this bill and prevent my circle of grieving mothers from growing any wider. Stop putting our communities in danger and strike stand your ground from our state once and for all.

Sybrina Fulton is the founder of the Trayvon Martin Foundation and co-author of “Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin — A Parent’s Story.”