In the latest turn in a long, ugly saga, George Zimmerman, the volunteer neighborhood watchman who was acquitted of second-degree murder after shooting Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, recently filed a lawsuit in which he presents himself as the victim of injustice and seeks recompense for his losses. The killing of Trayvon, who was 17, led to a national outpouring of anger—over Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which offers legal protections to those who use lethal force instead of retreating from confrontations, and over a broader pattern in which African Americans die at the hands of shooters who claim to have feared for their own lives.
Zimmerman’s lawsuit reflects a different kind of indignation. Six years after his trial, he is now accusing Trayvon’s parents; their attorney, Benjamin Crump; the state of Florida; and others of colluding in what the suit portrays as an unfair prosecution. His lawsuit seeks an eye-popping $100 million in damages for the personal losses he claims to have sustained. “Plaintiff Zimmerman,” his complaint says, “has suffered severe loss of reputation, goodwill, and past, present, and future loss of income, earning, and other financial damage.”
News coverage of the suit has been largely dismissive. “George Zimmerman is still not done being a scumbag,” a Miami Herald writer asserted. “George Zimmerman’s Lawsuit Doesn’t Stand a Chance,” declared the headline of a CNN analysis. In a written response to the lawsuit, Crump suggests that the complaint is so devoid of reason that it does not warrant critical attention: “This tale defies all logic, and it’s time to close the door on these baseless imaginings.”
But to treat the lawsuit as frivolous is to disregard its deeper significance.
There is, in fact, a perverse logic built into Zimmerman’s suit that must not be overlooked—a logic consistent with the kind of gun-rights activism that produced the “stand your ground” law in Florida and similar legislation in more than 30 states. In this line of thinking, unsuspecting gun owners might be compelled at any time to use violence to save their own lives or someone else’s, and the real victims of such confrontations are the shooters who are hauled into court to answer for their actions. Zimmerman’s decision to sue Trayvon’s family is the action of one former defendant in a high-profile criminal case, but it occurs in a broader political and legal context.
Earlier this year, I published research on the pioneering 2005 Florida stand-your-ground law made infamous by Zimmerman’s case. I focused in particular on the reasons given at the time for the law’s introduction, design, and passage. Proponents specifically emphasized the expense and inconvenience imposed upon gun owners who are forced to explain their actions in court. They framed criminal prosecution as a cumbersome ordeal that carries an unfair financial burden. Legislators lamented the possibility that a person acting in self-defense could be charged with a crime and therefore need to hire a lawyer, afford court fees, miss work, and undergo a lengthy trial. For example, when describing the case of a man who fatally shot an alleged burglar and faced the possibility of criminal charges and attorney fees, one Republican legislator said, “He’s going to sit there and have to hire a lawyer for $20,000 to defend what he had done?” Lamenting the legal expenses that the shooter and his wife could have incurred, the legislator continued, “Why should those people have to pay for their defense when their actions were defensible?”
In the push for stand your ground in Tallahassee, racial code language abounded. “Violent criminals” in the “bad part of town” figured prominently in the deliberations that produced the legislation, while “drug dealers,” “gangs,” and “cop killers” were to be exempted from the new law’s protections.
National media outlets, which tend to cover only the most controversial stand-your-ground cases, might give the misimpression that the law is invoked only rarely. In fact, it often is—especially, as some data show, in cases of interracial violence in rural and suburban areas. Other researchers have established that juries are more likely to acquit defendants who cite the stand-your-ground law if the shooting victim is black.
Precisely because of incidents like the killing of Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter activists and other racial-justice advocates have sought to draw attention to deaths at the hands of police officers and armed citizens. Meanwhile, in one state capital after the next, gun-rights advocates and lawmakers sympathetic to their point of view have been reshaping legal norms around a much different conception of loss—in which the person who committed a harm instead claims to have suffered one.
This sentiment has not gone unnoticed in the insurance industry. Owners of concealed-carry weapons can buy policies that indemnify them if they face criminal prosecution or civil action. Coverage for most policies includes attorney referrals, bail-bond funds, lost-wage reimbursement, criminal legal fees, civil damages, court fees, attorney fees, and even psychological support. Policy limits vary, but some promise unlimited coverage of legal fees and tens of thousands of dollars for lost wages. Gun-control and racial-justice advocates fear that these policies—which critics have dubbed “murder insurance”—will embolden gun owners to resort to using their weapons rashly. Several states have launched investigations of companies providing this coverage or have sought to ban it entirely. But the rapid spread of stand-your-ground laws suggests that there is a market for a product that treats shooters as victims.
In isolation, any one of these elements—an aggrieved person’s lawsuit, a state statute, or an emerging kind of insurance policy—is easy to dismiss as an outlier. Yet the warped notion of loss that informs each of these developments has far-reaching consequences for American society.
Against that notion of loss, we might consider the many African Americans who lose their loved ones or their own lives to supposed acts of self-defense. And we might ask why so many lawmakers, prosecutors, and jurors find it easier to recognize losses suffered by an agent of violence than those imposed on its actual victims.