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Why Zimmerman verdict might not roll back 'stand your ground' laws (+video)

The US attorney general, Juror B37, and even Stevie Wonder express reservations about self-defense laws like Florida's 'stand your ground' statute, a factor in the George Zimmerman trial. What's the likelihood such laws will be reconsidered?

By Staff writer / July 17, 2013

George Zimmerman leaves court with his family after Zimmerman's not guilty verdict was read in Seminole Circuit Court in Sanford, Fla. on Saturday, July 13.

Joe Burbank/AP

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One legacy of the George Zimmerman not-guilty verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin may be to buttress the use of firearms in self-defense – a reinforcement that has US officials and others worried that expansive new self-defense laws in the states could become vehicles for people to express their personal prejudices with gun violence.

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Protesters upset with the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial are remaining at the Capitol even though Gov. Rick Scott has said no to their demands.

Attorney General Eric Holder raised the concern Tuesday during a speech to the NAACP, describing as "senseless" the self-defense doctrines that expand beyond defense of one's own home to self-protection in public places. Such laws allow “violent situations to escalate,” he charged.

Even Juror B37, whose descriptions of the jury's race-blind deliberations in the Zimmerman trial provoked a backlash among those who believe racial profiling was the heart of the matter, ultimately cited Florida's expansive self-defense law as the reason for the acquittal. Her prayers, she said, are with those “who have the influence and power to modify the laws that left me with no verdict option other than ‘not guilty’….” 

Indeed, the Florida judge in the case instructed the jury that under state law Zimmerman had "no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force" if he reasonably feared for his life or great bodily harm.

As attention zeroes in on so-called "stand your ground" laws (musician Stevie Wonder said Tuesday he won't perform in Florida until the law there is repealed), the obvious next question is, what's the likelihood of changing them? Poor to nonexistent, say some who track the gun culture in America.

“Non-gun owners are questioning Stand Your Ground laws … [b]ut the gun lobby is too strong to allow such laws to be repealed,” writes Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” in an e-mail. “For better or worse, stand your ground laws are here to stay.”

First passed in Florida in 2005 and now law in more than half the states, "stand your ground" statutes are designed to clip the wings of prosecutors who seek to bring charges against gun owners who shoot someone and claim self-defense. Usually, these defendants are allowed to ask a judge for immunity from prosecution, and the judge then weighs whether the "preponderance of evidence" – a relatively low threshold of proof – indicates that the shooter did or didn't act in self-defense under the law. The bottom line is that it’s harder for prosecutors to place responsibility on someone who claims self-defense.

On Feb. 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, had shopped at a convenience store and was returning to a house where his father was staying in a gated neighborhood in Sanford, Fla., when Zimmerman spotted him, followed him, and then fatally shot him after Trayvon punched him. Originally released by Sanford police, Zimmerman was arrested by a special prosecutor 44 days later. The subsequent trial, which began June 10, was widely watched, culminating late Saturday in a not-guilty verdict. 

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