George Zimmerman’s killing of teenager Trayvon Martin with a handgun in February 2012 inflamed the nation. His eventual acquittal by the jury, even more so.
The “Stand Your Ground” provisions in Florida law that averted a jail sentence for Zimmerman are probably rooted on self-defense legal thinking that goes back centuries, according to Catholic University law school Professor Ken Pennington, who spoke about the subject on March 20 as a presenter in the spring Faculty Speaker Series Luncheon.
Recapping the highlights of a paper he recently presented at Notre Dame, Pennington began by noting that every society in human history has recognized some right to personal self-defense, that is, the right to strike back at an attacker if one’s life is threatened.
But as early as the third century, the notion of self-defense as an absolute right without boundaries began to morph. Roman thinking of the time extended self-defense to include the right to protect property as well. At the same time, though, ground rules began to emerge.
Leading thinkers suggested that self-defense should be proportional to the threat, and that combatants ought to have roughly equal weapons and physical capabilities. Killing must be a last resort, they declared, and the attacked have a duty to retreat unless there is no other choice.
As time went on the evolution of thought on the subject continued. The Justinian Code of ancient Rome and the Byzantine Empire took it further, making perhaps the first statement on what we today call carry-and-conceal laws: “No one shall without our knowledge and consent bear any arms.”
Even the Catholic Church weighed in in the 11th century, granting clerics permission to carry arms to repel robbers, a privilege that wasn’t rescinded for another seven centuries.
Tracing the history of self-defense or stand-your-ground legal theory is one thing, but drawing a clear line from it to the formation of the US Penal Code is quite another, Pennington explained. American law contains statutes covering the use of force in self-protection, but the laws’ authors were opaque on the precise inspiration for their legal reasoning.
“What is the jurisprudence they think they’re basing these laws on?” Pennington asked.