“Jerusalem was destroyed,” according to Rabbi Yohanan, “because her people hewed strictly to the letter of the Torah.” This harsh warning from the Talmud is invoked when rabbis and lay people need to draw a distinction between what is “legal” and what is “just.” As the 20th-century scholar Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser explained, “A community in which men are content to hew to the strict letter of the law was devoid of the moral cement that gives a social order stability.”
By nearly all accounts, a Florida jury reached a fair and reasonable conclusion in declaring George Zimmerman not guilty of second degree murder or manslaughter in the shooting of teen Trayvon Martin. Under Florida’s self-defense statute, persons who believe themselves to be in danger of “great bodily harm” may respond with deadly force, even if such persons were themselves the pursuers in an encounter. “[I]t is not enough for the state to prove that George Zimmerman acted unwisely in following Martin,” writes the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. “Under Florida law, George Zimmerman had no responsibility to — at any point — retreat.”
And yet the volatile mix of stand-your-ground laws and permissive concealed weapons statutes suggests that the killing of Martin was a tragedy waiting to happen. In this case, the law itself guarantees that armed, untrained citizens will find themselves acting as self-appointed agents of law enforcement, with tragic results.
The Trayvon Martin case calls for a national conversation on race, for sure, but it also demands that our courts and legislators recalibrate the law itself. That isn’t to say that people should be denied their constitutional right to bear arms or to self-defense, but it does call for restoring a balance between legal and sensible gun ownership and a stable social order, between legitimate self-defense and common sense — and, ultimately, between what is legal, and what is just.