On February 26th, (entirely self-proclaimed) "neighborhood watch captain" George Zimmerman of Sanford, Florida spotted a lone black teenager walking in the rain, and concluded, on no other evidence, that this was the only plausible suspect in a recent string of neighborhood burglaries. He called 911 (as he had done dozens of times lately) and (once again) cops told him they would be there soon; they specifically also told him not to do anything on his own, not to even the follow the kid, let alone confront him. Zimmerman complained to the 911 dispatcher that "these assholes always get away" and disregarded this legal order, chased the kid down, and, as 17 year old Trayvon Martin, who was only walking back to his dad's house from the nearest convenience store, screamed for help loudly enough that four people in nearby houses could hear him screaming, Zimmerman gunned the kid down.
When the police arrived, all they could do was ask Zimmerman if he had felt afraid. Why? Because under the law in Florida and 22 other states, a law called "Stand Your Ground," you're entitled to kill anybody who scares you. No, really; I am only barely oversimplifying this and not exaggerating it at all. Since "Stand Your Ground" passed, two killers per week, on average, have gone free just in Florida alone.
How can this be? Actually, it's not all that incomprehensible, if you know the backstory to the "Stand Your Ground" law. It wasn't unimaginable or inconceivable, it was merely wrong.
The backstory to "Stand Your Ground" starts with this simple fact: a tiny minority of Americans believe that if more people were walking around carrying concealed weapons, then at least some criminals would be afraid to commit street crimes, and the crime rate would go down. This belief has been disproved repeatedly and extremely thoroughly; there is no correlation, neither a positive nor a negative one, between the number of people carrying guns and the crime rate. It's a completely discredited idea, among sociologists and historians and criminologists. But this doesn't change the fact that several percent of the American voting public still believes it. And that's an important couple of percent. For one thing, they're very, very well organized -- and relentlessly determined to get their way. They're also disproportionately important in American politics because they're one of several fringe constituencies that the Republicans have to motivate to show up at the polls if they have any hope of winning. So there's been a steady stream of Republican and gun-lobbyist propaganda in favor of more people carrying guns for self-defense, and for those people to use their guns when confronted by criminals.
But as more and more places tried this, they ran into a problem, even with the few anecdotal cases that, they claim, prove their point: it was still, for all practical purposes, illegal to brandish a gun at someone, let alone fire it. Before you object, note that I said "for all practical purposes." What that means is that if you fired your gun, or even if somebody else saw you brandishing it, the burden of proof was (and, in 27 states, still is) on you to prove that you were justified; otherwise, enough evidence existed to put you away (or at least fine you heavily) for anything from improper use of a firearm up to and including felony assault or aggravated homicide. If you drew a gun on a burglar to keep him from stealing the $100 in your wallet, you would end up spending $1500 to $3,000 in legal fees to stay out of jail yourself.
To the National Rifle Association and other gun rights activists, this was a completely intolerable state of affairs. So they went to right-wing think tank ALEC (yes, that ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the same think tank that has written most of the anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-Hispanic, and anti-union bills for every Republican-controlled state legislature in the country these last two years), and asked them to write a model statute that would shift the burden of proof back onto the cops. They intended that statute to make it legally safe to use a firearm in self-defense, to make it functionally impossible for the cops or for the assailant or for the late assailant's family to criminally prosecute you or sue you if you were the one who was attacked, and you were only defending yourself.
They called the resulting model legislation the "Stand Your Ground" Doctrine because, among its many other protections for the person using a gun to defend himself, it removed the prior presumption that shooting someone or threatening to shoot them, when outside the home, was only acceptable if there was no other way to keep them from hurting you or someone else. Before this bill, if someone tried to mug you or rape you and you shot them, one of the things you were going to be asked to prove to keep your own backside out of jail was that you couldn't have otherwise escaped. Not any more! Now you don't have to look for any other way to escape or disarm them, you can just shoot.
Except, of course, that law enforcement has spent the last year learning, the hard way, in every state where the Stand Your Ground bill has been signed into law, that in the absence of any other witnesses, any shooter can claim that he felt threatened. Even in cases as cut and dried as shooting a kid half your size and half your age in the back as he was running away. Heck, at this point, the mugger can shoot you, as long as there are no witnesses, lift your wallet and your cellphone before the police arrive, and if he can say with a straight face "I thought he was reaching for a weapon," that's your mugger's get out of jail free card. Clearly, as with most arguments about guns in American, they didn't think this one all the way through.