Will Trayvon Martin case spur rethinking of Stand Your Ground laws?

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. 

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

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.

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 fianceé'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.

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.

“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." 

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