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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. 

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Chief Lee received a vote of no-confidence from the Sanford City Council on Wednesday. Some suggest the problem in the Martin case may not be with the law itself, but rather with the Sanford P.D.'s interpretation of it. The Stand Your Ground law, they say, does not guarantee a right to confront somebody and then claim self-defense if a shooting ensues.

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“It's interesting to speculate about how the police culture was incorporating [information about the law] into their activities, and maybe that is the point of friction and difficulty,” says Nicholas Johnson, a law professor at Fordham University. “I'm sure that the people reevaluating the law will be wondering and thinking about whether it's a question of communication about what the law says versus a need for shift in the law [itself].”

The case shot into the national spotlight last week after Trayvon's parents and their lawyers blasted the police department for not arresting George Zimmerman. On tapes of Zimmerman's 911 calls to the police before the shooting, Zimmerman reported that a black male wearing a hoodie was acting suspicious. He then ignored a dispatcher's suggestion to stay put and pursued the teen on foot. A struggle ensued in which Trayvon was killed and Zimmerman received cuts on his nose and on the back of his head. Zimmerman told police he was retreating to his truck when he was attacked.

Heeding a growing uproar on the perception of racial injustice – what if the shooter had been black and the victim white? – the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI, and the US Justice Department's Civil Rights Division are all investigating the case. Zimmerman, meanwhile, is in hiding, though his father, Robert Zimmerman, has defended his son, saying he wasn't acting on prejudice and did not initiate the attack.

“It seems to me there's something of a failure of a local prosecutor and law enforcement, including the fact that Zimmerman wasn't tested for drugs or intoxicants,” says Bob Cottrol, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. “It seems a fair stretch in terms of using the no-duty-to-retreat law as a defense.”

The Stand Your Ground law in Florida has been invoked in a number of questionable cases, critics say. It has been used in the case of a gang member who shot and killed a 15-year-old and successfully argued self-defense, and in a case last year in which a repo man wasn't charged after shooting and killing a man trying to stop him from repossessing a car. But in 2007, the courts did question self-defense claims in the case of a homeowner who shot, but did not kill, a man from behind as the man walked away from the house.

“There are lots of instances where people end up making successful self-defense claims where there's preliminary back and forth – a fight starts, there's retreat and pursuit – and that are typical of the set of problems that one has to unwind in self-defense cases,” says Fordham's Professor Johnson. “But pursuit is two steps away from retreat, and that complicates Zimmerman's claim of self-defense.”

Research is inconclusive concerning the safety effects of laws that allow wider latitude for citizens to carry and use guns. But the Trayvon Martin case is highlighting for some legislators the possibility that the self-defense doctrine, intermingled with thorny issues of American life such as race and vigilantism, can lead to unnecessary bloodshed.

"Nothing's ever finished in the legislature, I learned that. Everything can always be readdressed," state Rep. Dennis Baxley, a co-author of the 2005 law, told CBS News. “We need to look at the circumstances that occurred and see if some kind of legislation is in order." 

IN PICTURES: The Trayvon Martin case 

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