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A year after Trayvon Martin shooting, is America much changed?

The trend in the states toward liberalized self-defense and gun laws appears to have stalled in the year since unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Fla. But states that already had such laws have stuck with them.

By Staff writer / February 26, 2013

This image shows security camera footage of Trayvon Martin at a convenience store in Sanford, Fla, a year ago. The trend in the states toward liberalized self-defense and gun laws appears to have stalled in the year since the unarmed teenager was shot and killed by armed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman as Martin walked back from the store that evening.

Courtesy of George Zimmerman Legal Case/Reuters

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A year ago Trayvon Martin made a fateful decision: to take a break from the NBA all-star game on TV and kick down to the corner convenience mart, where he bought a Snapple and a bag of Skittles.

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The lanky 17-year-old never returned to the home where his dad was staying in Sanford, Fla. An armed neighborhood watchman had targeted Trayvon as suspicious as he walked back from the store that evening, confronted him, and, after a tussle, killed him with a close-range gunshot to the chest. It wasn't until the next morning that Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, learned what had happened to his missing son.

The death of Trayvon, an African-American, became major national news after Sanford police declined to charge his shooter, citing Florida's self-defense laws, and the teenager's disbelieving parents began lobbying for justice. It would spur, in the year that followed, a state reversal of the Sanford police decision not to arrest the shooter, a closer look at liberalized gun laws, and a hiatus on new state laws sanctioning lethal force to perceived threats.  

"For years when permissive gun laws were being enacted, gun control advocates said, 'This will lead to people shooting people for no reason,' and, the truth is, studies do not back up that argument," says Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Law School. "But what we suddenly had was a big, high-profile incident that seemed to suggest that's what happened – that people roaming around with guns are a danger to everybody, including an innocent kid walking around with Skittles."

George Zimmerman, 27, now faces trial for second-degree murder – and his defense team is expected to argue during a pretrial hearing in April that he acted in accord with Florida's Stand Your Ground law and was within his rights to defend himself with deadly force, even though he forced a confrontation with Trayvon. 

"My hope is that we've sort of moved past the initial emotional reaction to more thoughtful reflection on what this means for the country, to have laws that make it so easy for disputes that could otherwise be resolved peacefully to lead to deadly outcomes that we don't seem to condemn," say Joelle Moreno, a law professor at Florida International University.

Starting in 2005, at least 24 states have enacted versions of so-called Stand Your Ground laws, but no additional states passed such a law since Trayvon's death. Others point to the attention the case brought to a driver of those laws, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has since shifted its focus to fiscal policy instead of gun policy.

Travyon's parents, Tracy Martin and Sabrina Fulton, will attend a candlelight vigil in New York City Tuesday evening at 7:15, the time that their son died a year ago. With the help of their lawyer, Ben Crump, they have pushed to keep Trayvon's death at the forefront of policy discussions and formed a lobbying group urging the 24 states with some form of Stand your Ground laws to reassess the statutes' effectiveness.

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