Mr. Obama speaks out

The President’s remarks on race, crime, and the killing of Trayvon Martin add needed context to the public debate


PRESIDENT Obama has made a valuable, highly personal contribution to the public debate over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Although he properly did not challenge the verdict of the Florida jury, the nation’s first black president offered an essential reminder — especially to white Americans — that “the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”

Noting that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Mr. Obama observed that “very few African-American men in this country … haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store,” adding: “That includes me.”

The President refuted the canard that critics of the Zimmerman verdict are deliberately ignoring the effects of black-on-black crime to focus on perceived racial injustice in the Martin case. He acknowledged that young black men are “disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.”

Mr. Obama did not demand the repeal of “stand your ground” laws in Florida and nearly half the other states, including Michigan. Such laws authorize potential crime victims to use deadly force in self-defense without first seeking a safe escape from imminent mortal danger.

These laws are not likely to be overturned. But Mr. Obama sensibly proposed that they be revisited to determine whether they include ambiguities that “may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case.” Mr. Zimmerman did not cite Florida’s stand-your-ground law in his defense, but the law was mentioned both in lawyers’ closing arguments and the judge’s instructions to the jury.

Such a review seems especially necessary now that Mr. Zimmerman’s acquittal is encouraging opportunistic politicians to promote stand-your-ground laws in states that don’t have them. Among them is Ohio, where a state House member — who will have to look elsewhere to see his name in the newspaper — has proposed a version of stand-your-ground that is extreme even for the genre.

Ohio law now permits citizens in their homes and vehicles to use deadly force in self-defense only if retreat is impossible. State lawmakers seek to broaden even further Ohioans’ ability to carry concealed weapons, while they disdain tougher background-check and gun-safety measures. An excessively permissive stand-your-ground law could invite an escalation of deadly confrontations that would jeopardize rather than enhance public safety.

A new study from Texas A&M University concludes that states with stand-your-ground laws have more homicides than those that don’t. Researchers assert that “the prospect of facing additional self-defense does not deter crime … we find no evidence of deterrence effects on burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault.”

Less helpful than a careful re-evaluation of stand-your-ground laws are proposals for economic boycotts of Florida and other states with such laws to protest the Zimmerman verdict. A boycott is a blunt instrument that often harms those it isn’t aimed at — in this case, those who were not responsible for the verdict or for stand-your-ground legislation, and may not agree with either.

Instead of pursuing further divisiveness, Americans would do better to pay attention to President Obama’s wise counsel, and look for ways to achieve greater mutual understanding when their positions diverge on some of this nation’s most vexing dilemmas.