The shooting of a Florida teenager by a neighborhood watch volunteer has raised questions about whether the law justifying the use of deadly force by private citizens should be re-examined.

George Zimmerman reportedly told police that Trayvon Martin attacked him after he had given up on chasing the teenager and was returning to his sport utility vehicle. That explanation is vehemently dismissed by the victim's family and friends who feel that Trayvon was recklessly gunned down by Zimmerman.

Protesters, upset that Zimmerman was not arrested, argue how a boy, who was carrying nothing more than a bag of Skittles and a can of ice tea, could have been a threat by someone weighing 200 pounds and carrying a 9mm semiautomatic handgun. Authorities in Sanford, Fla. are trying to piece together details of the confrontation.

Judging from the Florida 911 call, it appears the dispatcher acted properly in trying to put the brakes on Zimmerman. When she asked Zimmerman if he was following the person, he answered "yes."

"We don't need you to do that," the dispatcher advised.

Florida is among 21 states with a "Stand Your Ground Law," which gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight. The self-defense law helps explain why Zimmerman has not been arrested in Martin's death.

Under the Florida law, police officers on scene decide whether they believe the self-defense claim. In many cases, the officer's defer to making the arrest, letting the courts work out whether the deadly force is justified.

Last summer, Pennsylvania's Castle Doctrine legislation was signed into law by the governor, permitting law-abiding citizens to use force, including deadly force, against an attacker in their home and any place where they have a legal right to be. The law also protects individuals from civil lawsuits by an attacker or attacker's family when force is used.

A separate case closer to home last week shows how rumors can quickly escalate into out-of-control acts of mob brutality and vigilante justice. Berks County was the scene of an ugly incident whereby false information about a child predator ended with an attack against an innocent 76-year-old man. The unsubstantiated rumors carried in a Facebook message, told of a gray-haired man watching children from a van.

Police said the victim of the assault ended up in the hospital because he resembled the supposed stalker. The Exeter Township man was taking his evening walk when he was slammed to the ground and suffered three broken ribs. Prosecutors say his attackers could face charges.

They deserve to be prosecuted.

Both the Florida shooting and the Berks County beating are cases not about guns and other weapons, but about highly-agitated and possible disturbed individuals making poor personal judgments and decisions. In both cases, the attackers appeared to be emotionally swept up in the moment, something they weren't properly trained or emotionally able to deal with it.

There's a definite line between persons being concerned neighbors watching out for the welfare of others and those attempting to mete out their own brand of vigilante justice. The attackers cited above crossed the line in both cases.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com