Trayvon Martin shooting: a turning point in gun rights debate?

For years, gun laws had grown less restrictive. But some gun rights advocacy has been curtailed after the Trayvon Martin shooting, which has provided ammunition for gun control groups.

By , Staff writer

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    Demonstrators march past alfresco diners as they take part in a rally in support of slain teenager Trayvon Martin in New York April 10.
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Will Americans leery of a decade of gun rights expansions stand their ground over the Trayvon Martin case?

The Feb. 26 shooting of the unarmed teenager in Sanford, Fla., by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, and the initial police decision not to charge Mr. Zimmerman, sparked a national debate about race and violence in American society.

But so far, Trayvon’s death is having the biggest impact on the national gun policy debate.

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The shooting, some say, may have set a potential high-water mark for gun rights after a decade of legislative expansion, which included measures like concealed carry and no-duty-to-retreat in public laws, and the landmark Florida “Stand Your Ground” law that’s been cited in the Trayvon Martin case.

A national conservative group that helped author the Florida law has even curtailed its gun rights advocacy, citing pressure from corporations.

“At some point, the progressives have got to stand their ground against the NRA,” says Philip Cook, a sociologist who studies gun policy and crime at Duke University, in Durham, N.C. “I think otherwise the NRA will continue to push for a broader interpretation of their understanding of what the Second Amendment right is, to the point where everybody pretty much can carry a gun, concealed or openly, all the time in any circumstance, and do with it what they want.”

Evidence suggests that this could be such a moment.

More so than the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords last year in Tucson by a mentally disturbed man, the Martin case has provided ammunition for gun control groups largely because it so starkly touches on two of the major gun rights pillars: the expansion of self-defense doctrine into public spaces, and the growth of concealed weapons laws, especially so-called “shall issue” laws that require states to give concealed weapons permits to applicants who meet standard requirements.

On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California put a hold on two separate Senate bills that would add so-called state-to-state “reciprocity” to allow concealed weapons owners to cross any state line, which would test the ability of cities like New York to control who’s allowed to carry a gun in a specific jurisdiction.

Gun owner groups have pushed the bills, saying they have the super-majority in the Senate to override Feinstein’s hold. The Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence applauded Feinstein’s move, calling the proposed laws the “George Zimmerman Armed Vigilante Acts.”

On Wednesday, Rick Scott, Florida’s Republican governor, began appointing a key Stand Your Ground review panel in the wake of Trayvon’s death, assigning his lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll, to lead the panel. Ms. Carroll is black and a member of both the NAACP and the NRA.

Zimmerman, who has a concealed weapons permit even though he'd once been charged, though not convicted, of assault on a police officer, has claimed that he acted in self-defense, and police originally let him go, finding no probable cause to arrest him. Last week, a Jacksonville prosecutor appointed by Governor Scott filed an arrest warrant against Zimmerman for second-degree murder charges. Zimmerman will have a chance to plead self-defense under Stand Your Ground to a judge before any jury trial happens.

Last week, Michael Yaki, a member of the US Civil Rights Commission, said he would ask the federal agency to investigate the Stand Your Ground law, ostensibly to identify whether there is a racial dimension to how it's applied.

And on the legislative front, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a 40-year-old conservative advocacy group that supplies legislators with ready-written legislation, announced that, because of pressure from corporations that support its operations, it’s disbanding its Public Safety and Elections taskforce, which supplied states like Florida with its Stand Your Ground law.

ALEC’s decision to end their gun rights advocacy “may be the most important thing politically in terms of legislative effect” in the aftermath of the Trayvon shooting, says Professor Cook at Duke.

Gun control advocacy groups say the Trayvon shooting has given a lot of Americans pause about the expansion of concealed-carry rights – as many as 10 million Americans now have concealed carry permits, compared to a few hundred thousand a decade ago – and about the growing numbers of places where Americans can carry guns, including, in some states, restaurants, statehouses, even city parks.

“Possibly the determining issue here is that now a lot of people who have felt they’re not affected by gun violence or [looser gun laws] recognize that, ‘This could have been my kid,’ and they’re seeing the effects of these laws in the real world, and I think that’s something that’s different from past high-profile incidents,” says Josh Sugarman, founder and executive director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, which advocates for stricter gun laws and more complete and accurate gun-tracking data.

“The fact is that the exact scenarios that [gun rights] advocacy groups said would never happen do happen – that concealed carry handgun holders do kill and not just in self-defense situations, but in road rage, domestic shootings, arguments, and bar fights.”

Gun rights groups, meanwhile, say they believe gun rights, including the concealed carry reciprocity law, will continue to expand, in part because they believe the justice system will find that Zimmerman had the right to defend himself the night he shot Trayvon. They also contend that a plurality of Americans ultimately understand that laws like concealed carry and Stand Your Ground act as deterrents to crime.

“If Gov. Rick Scott wants to know the effect of these laws, he’ll find out that they’ve resulted in a 16 percent reduction in Florida’s homicide rate,” says Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, in Virginia. “You’ve got a real dilemma if you’re on the anti-armed self-defense side, that [you believe] the people are so stupid they keep voting for this stuff.”

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