It’s easy to blame George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old Hispanic American who shot the unarmed boy Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26 in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman may end up imprisoned for decades, but Florida law should also go on trial.
When it comes to a confrontation on a dark street, at least two competing impulses come to mind: Do you stand your ground or turn the other cheek? Engage or run? Instinct, evolution, psychology and religion all offer different answers.
But the law— which has to wrestle a moral conundrum into plain language—ends up as a blunt instrument for a delicate task. In 2005, Florida became the first state to expand an ancient rule of law called the castle doctrine. that doctrine says that if strangers enter your house without permission, you can kill them with impunity. The Florida legislature decided that the old common law should extend not only to the sidewalk outside your house, but to “any other place where he or she has a right to be”—any street, any park, any store: anywhere.
Despite its breadth, only 20 of Florida’s 153 legislators opposed the Stand Your Ground bill. Republican governor Jeb Bush signed the bill into law on April 26, 2005. Since then, at least 24 states have enacted similar expansions of the castle doctrine.
Read the full story about Stand Your Ground in the new issue of TIME, online Thursday and hitting newsstands Friday.