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States Revisit "Stand Your Ground" Laws in Wake of Trayvon Martin Case
Charles Monaco on July 19, 2013 - 4:41pm
On Friday afternoon, after a week of emotionally charged protest and national debate over a not guilty verdict in the Florida trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, President Obama expanded on his previous comments on the case in remarks to the White House press corps, outlining what he saw as some potential positive steps forward for the nation. Among those steps: asking states to revisit so-called "Stand Your Ground" laws.
"I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations," said President Obama. "I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the stand your ground laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case. On the other hand, if we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?"
President Obama was not alone in calling for states to review "Stand Your Ground" laws this week. State lawmakers in Florida and across the nation, some of whom have led opposition in the more than 20 states which have recently enacted similar laws, also renewed their calls for repeal in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict.
In Florida, minority leaders in both the House and Senate called for a special session to either repeal or significantly limit the scope of their state's law. Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard (D) told MSNBC's Chris Hayes, “We’ve given the governor a number of options. I’ve sponsored full-on repeals of ‘Stand Your Ground.’ I’ve also sponsored an amendment to ‘Stand Your Ground.’” Adding to the pressure for repeal in Florida, dozens of protesters including students with the Dream Defenders converged on the state capitol in Tallahassee this week demanding a meeting with Gov. Rick Scott and pledging to remain there until a special session is held to pass legislation — a "Trayvon Martin Act" — that would "address the issues at the center of the Trayvon Martin tragedy: stand your ground vigilantism, racial profiling and a war on youth that paints us as criminals and funnels us out of schools and into jails."
"Stand Your Ground" was first passed in Florida in 2005, and groups like the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council subsequently helped it spread to at least 20 other states. "It happened very, very quickly, in rapid succession," Jeannie Suk, a Harvard law professor, told NBC News. "The National Rifle Association at the time stated its intention to do it in Florida and then use it as a jumping-off point for a sweeping change in self-defense law across the country. They were not at all shy or apologetic about that. This was the goal."
In some of those states, repeal or overhaul may soon be on the agenda. In Michigan, lawmakers appeared open to revisiting their law after the Florida verdict. "Issues that happen in other parts of the country cause us to re-look from time to time. It's always a good idea to revisit laws that we have in place and see if they make sense in comparison," said Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R) this week. In Texas, State Rep. Garnet Coleman (D), who has previously introduced a bill to limit "Stand Your Ground" that stalled in committee, signaled his intention to continue the fight next session.
Despite studies showing the harmful effects of these laws, the challenges faced by legislators and activists supporting repeal are still significant. Florida convened a "task force" to look at the law that took little action following the initial furor around the killing of Trayvon Martin last year. An effort to repeal New Hampshire's law was unsuccessful earlier this year. And other state legislators are going in the opposite direction, including lawmakers Ohio and Iowa who introduced bills that would expand "Stand Your Ground" provisions this past session.
The national attention focused on these state laws does not look likely to dissipate anytime soon. In addition to the comments this week by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder calling on states to review their laws, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois announced Friday that a Senate Judiciary subcommittee would hold hearings to "examine the gun lobby’s and the American Legislative Exchange Council’s influence in creating and promoting these laws; the way in which the laws have changed the legal definition of self-defense; the extent to which the laws have encouraged unnecessary shooting confrontations; and the civil rights implications when racial profiling and 'stand your ground' laws mix, along with other issues."
(For more information on "Stand Your Ground" statutes state-by-state, see this interactive map by the Sunlight Foundation.)