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Will Trayvon Martin case spur rethinking of Stand Your Ground laws? (+video)

Calls are mounting to reassess, and perhaps refine, the Stand Your Ground law in Florida, after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by a man who apparently pursued the teen and then claimed self-defense. 

By Staff writer / March 22, 2012

Demonstrators chant Trayvon Martin's name during the Million Hoodie March in Union Square Wednesday, March 21, 2012 in New York.

Mary Altaffer/AP

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Seven years after Florida enacted a landmark gun rights law that became a model for other states, calls are mounting from the public and some state officials, including Gov. Rick Scott (R), to reassess it in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch captain who apparently confronted Trayvon after deeming that he looked suspicious.

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A Columbia University professor of law says the expansiveness of Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' law could cause problems for prosecutors and law enforcement officials trying to determine the credibility of evidence and witnesses.

A coalition of black Florida lawmakers has asked House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Republican, to open hearings on the Stand Your Ground law, which removes any duty by an armed citizen to retreat from danger and allows the use of deadly force if there's a reasonable fear of death or grave harm. Mr Cannon says he wants to wait until more facts are known about the incident, and until state and federal investigations are wrapped up, before he decides whether to do that. 

Meanwhile, state Sen. Chris Smith, a Broward County Democrat, has said he's writing a bill that would bar a shooter from claiming self-defense if he or she is at any point the aggressor or provocateur.

Governor Scott has told the news media he's open to changing the law, enacted in 2005. "If there's something wrong with the law that's in place, I think it's important we address it," he said. "If what's happening is it's being abused, that's not right."

Since the Stand Your Ground law took effect in Florida, the number of killings found to be justifiable homicide has jumped there. The annual number of such cases has gone from 13 a year on average before 2005 to an average of 36 a year after the law took effect.

Nationally, a jump in the number of justifiable homicides coincides with the adoption of Florida-like laws, which are backed by the NRA, in about half of the states. There were 238 justifiable homicides in the US in 2006, compared with 278 in 2010. 

The law's defenders say Stand Your Ground is intended, after all, to make people freer to defend themselves in public, so the increased claims of self-defense are an understandable, even desirable, outcome. What's more, Florida's violent crime rate dropped by nearly 7 percent both in 2009 and 2010, year over year.

Critics of these laws, however, say the leap in justifiable homicides proves that Stand Your Ground is a flawed strategy that has led to unintended consequences, including needless deaths. 

No controversy surrounding these laws has been bigger than the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26. Concern about the handling of his case has gradually evolved into widespread outrage, resulting in a massive Internet petition for the arrest of the shooter as well as major protests, including in Miami and New York, over perceived racial injustice. When he was shot, Trayvon, a high school basketball player and aspiring aviation mechanic, was on his way back to his father's fianceƩ's house in the gated Retreat at Twin Lakes community, after buying Skittles and an iced tea at a convenience store.

Even as the law comes under scrutiny, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee on Thursday stepped aside temporarily under mounting pressure over his department's handling of Trayvon's death. He had defended his department's decision to not arrest the shooter, a part-Hispanic man named George Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense. Police cited the Stand Your Ground law in declining to charge Mr. Zimmerman, who has an arrest record and who had lately made dozens of 911 calls to police to complain about suspicious individuals in the neighborhood. Police also did not test Zimmerman for alcohol or drug use before releasing him on the night of the shooting.

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