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Stand Your Ground must go; Dangerous law leads to needless killings by encouraging a shoot-first attitude

It is right, based on what we know, that George Zimmerman has been charged in the death of Trayvon Martin. Whether he is guilty as charged is for a judge and jury to decide, but it is beyond question that Zimmerman, who was armed, killed Trayvon, who was not and who was entitled to be where he was. The question of responsibility for the teenager's death needed to be settled, and a court of law is the only place to do it.

But we suspect, and we hope, that it won't only be Zimmerman who is on trial in Florida. His unindicted co-conspirator, almost without question, will be that state's preposterous and dangerous Stand Your Ground law. It will be invoked in Zimmerman's defense and, indeed, it is possible his conduct was based on that law's presumed protections. Floridians and Americans in general need to understand what this law is and why it is so perilous.

What Stand Your Ground laws do is take an important and broadly accepted concept -- the right of self-defense -- and expand it into something that is more likely to produce unnecessary bloodshed than to avoid it. They absolve an armed person, who is in a place where he is entitled to be, of the need to retreat before shooting if he believes his life is at risk.

That may, at first blush, sound plausible, but in reality it causes mayhem. Speaking to the Sun Sentinel after a Stand-Your-Ground shooting in January, former Broward County prosecutor David Frankel had this to say about the Florida law: "It is an abomination. The ultimate intent might be good, but in practice, people take the opportunity to shoot first and say later they had a justification. It almost gives them a free pass to shoot."

Is that what Zimmerman thought as he pursued Trayvon through the gated community where Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch captain? Plainly, that interpretation of the law was already in the Florida breeze when Zimmerman shot 17-year-old Trayvon on Feb. 26. And why wouldn't it be? When the law, itself, needlessly expands the circumstances in which citizens can shoot to kill, needless killings are bound to increase.

No one disputes the right of Americans to defend themselves, even using deadly force, when under serious threat in their own homes. But Stand Your Ground laws, pushed mainly by the National Rifle Association, are pointless. Indeed, they are, as Frankel said, an abomination.

As New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg caustically observed this week, "This has nothing to do with gun owners' rights. It has nothing to do with the Second Amendment."

What it is about, he said, is vigilantism -- "promoting a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it." Even troops in Iraq and Afghanistan -- men and women who are truly at risk -- must meet a higher standard before shooting, said former Army Major Jon Soltz, who was with Bloomberg.

Zimmerman may or may not be guilty of second-degree murder, the crime he was charged with this week. But Stand Your Ground laws are undeniably responsible for instilling a dangerous sense of entitlement in those who are armed and just waiting for the chance to shoot first. They, too, are in the dock, and the verdict is clear.