The New Vigilantes: Trayvon Martin and the 'shoot first' lobby

In 2007, 61-year old Joe Horn looked out the window of his Pasadena, Texas home and saw a pair of black men in his neighbors' yard, apparently involved in a burglary. Horn called 911, and, as journalist Liliana Segura would later report, became agitated, deciding he needed to stop the crime himself:

"I've got a shotgun," Horn told the 911 dispatcher. "You want me to stop him?"

The dispatcher tried to talk him down. "Nope, don't do that," he told Horn. "Ain't no property worth shooting somebody over, OK?"

It was not OK with Horn. With the dispatcher still on the phone, he grabbed his gun, went outside, yelled, "Move, you're dead!" -- and shot the two men in the back.

Both men -- Colombian immigrants Diego Ortiz and Miguel de Jesus -- were declared dead on the scene.

The details of the case differ somewhat from the February shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida that's generated a national uproar; there's no evidence, for example, that 17-year old Martin was engaged in any criminal act. 

But the two fatal shootings also share eerie similarities: Both involved black "suspects" being gunned down by armed, non-black residents taking the law into their own hands. In both cases, the 911 dispatchers tried to prevent a vigilante shooting. 

And both cases ignited debate about state laws -- pushed aggressively over the last decade by the nation's gun lobby -- that allow people who aren't law enforcement officials to use deadly force on the mere suspicion that someone else is putting their life or property at risk, a decision easily infused with racial stereotypes.

The New Vigilantism

In 2005, Florida passed the first "Stand Your Ground" law in the country. It was an expansion on the Castle Doctrine, a legal concept now codified by over 20 states that declares individuals have the right to defend their person or homes with force.

"Stand Your Ground," which was signed by Gov. Jeb Bush, took the concept one step further. Even away from the home, the statute says, a person can "meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."

The law further "provides that person is justified in using deadly force under certain circumstances," and "provides immunity from criminal prosecution or civil action for using deadly force."

As many predicted, the vague measure opened the door for a rise in vigilante shootings: As the Tampa Bay Times reported in October 2010, "justifiable homicides" tripled after the law went into effect. By 2009, two deadly shootings a week were being excused as warranted under the new law.

Florida's rise in extra-legal deadly shootings reflects a national trend: As more states have enacted laws embracing the Castle Doctrine or variations of "Stand Your Ground," the number of "justifiable homicides" has also grown.

According to FBI crime statistics, in 2005 there were 196 cases nationally where a killing was deemed "justifiable." By 2010, that number had grown to 278, leading critics to warn about a rising "shoot-first mentality" that was taking hold in states with the new laws.

The Shoot-First Lobby

Only 20 lawmakers voted against Florida's "Stand Your Ground" bill in 2005, but that's largely a testament to the power of the state's gun lobby. 

The lead lobbyist pushing the bill was infamous National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer. Hammer earned noteriety in the 1980s, when she called those supporting a tweak to the state's conceal carry law a "modern-day Gestapo."

Republicans quickly distanced themselves from Hammer, saying she had "lost any effectiveness or credibility she might have" with such inflammatory rhetoric; another said she had the "lowest standard of integrity I have ever seen for a lobbyist" in Florida.

But that didn't stop Hammer: In 1996, she told The New York Times that the solution to the nation's gun debate was to "get rid of all liberals."

But that was tame compared to the demagoguery Hammer used to push SB 436. She labeled all opponents -- which included the National District Attorneys Association, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, and police chiefs from cities including Miami and St. Petersburg -- as "bleeding heart criminal coddlers" who wanted Florida residents to "turn around and run" instead of protecting their family and property.

Even though they couldn't point to a single case where a law-abiding gun owner had been prosecuted for legitimate self-defense, Hammer and the gun lobby even stoked fears that lack of the law would leave residents "on their own" in the supposed fight for survival after hurricanes.

Concerns that it may lead to tragedy like Trayvon Martin's shooting? "Emotional hysterics."

Florida Republicans not only passed "Stand Your Ground," they later successfully lobbied to install Hammer in the Florida Women's Hall of Fame.

The victory in Florida emboldened the NRA to push for more state laws to allow the use of deadly force. As of January 2012, 30 states had some version of the Castle Doctrine; 17 states, clustered in the South and West, have versions of the more aggressive "Stand Your Ground" law.

This year, the NRA pledged to bring a version of the self-defense law to all 50 states.

Legal Killing?

Back in Florida, the authors of "Stand Your Ground" are now saying the law shouldn't apply in George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin. Because the 911 tape clearly shows Zimmerman deciding to pursue Martin, that rules out the "justifiable" use of force. As McClatchy reported:

"They got the goods on him. They need to prosecute whoever shot the kid," said Peaden, a Republican who sponsored the deadly force law in 2005. "He has no protection under my law."

But what if Martin's shooting hadn't caught national attention thanks to an explosion of celebrity tweets and other social media? As of this writing, local police still have yet to charge Zimmerman in the shooting, which they have claimed falls under the self-defense statute -- a decision they made based on Zimmerman's increasingly untenable assertion that he was being attacked.

In Texas in 2007, Joe Horn also claimed that "he was afraid for his life" in justifying his fatal shooting. But like the Martin case, the 911 tapes are damning in showing that Horn's life clearly was never at risk -- he, like Zimmerman, pursued the supposed burglars, even though they weren't even on his own property. 

In the summer of 2008, Joe Horn was cleared of any wrongdoing. A grand jury failed to indict Horn, thanks largely to the Castle Doctrine law that came into effect in 2007.

Indeed, the 911 tapes show Horn knew about the law, and guessed that -- even though his claim to self-defense was shaky at best -- it would give him immunity to shoot. As Horn told the dispatcher, who was vainly trying to dissuade him from shooting:

I have a right to protect myself too, sir … And the laws have been changed in this country since September the first, and you know it and I know it.

As Stephanie Storey, the fiance of one of the men killed by Horn, would later say:

This man took the law into his own hands. He shot two individuals in the back after having been told over and over to stay inside. It was his choice to go outside and his choice to take two lives.

And, thanks to the laws of vigilante justice in Texas and beyond, it was all perfectly legal.