Stand Your Ground law: Florida review panel to draw wide scrutiny

Florida's review of its controversial Stand Your Ground law began Tuesday. Spurred by the Trayvon Martin shooting, it is the first comprehensive look at the effect of such laws, which 24 other states have copied. 

Led by Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, a black Republican who is a life-time member of both the NAACP and the NRA, a 19-member panel assembled by Gov. Rick Scott (R) after the Trayvon Martin shooting sat down for the first time Tuesday to examine the future of the state's landmark self-defense law.

Enacted in 2005, the Stand Your Ground law, which expanded the “no duty to retreat” doctrine to public areas, became a touchstone for those who sought to extend gun rights and self-defense in US society, and the Trayvon Martin case has highlighted how those trends intersect with perceptions of young black men. Critics say the law has become a license for hate-motivated criminals to kill, while proponents credit it with saving lives and reducing the murder rate.

The law has been germane to the Trayvon Martin case, where a neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman said he acted in self defense when shooting 17-year-old Trayvon. Local police, citing Florida's Stand Your Ground law, didn’t charge the part-white, part-Hispanic Mr. Zimmerman for shooting the unarmed black youth. The case inflamed racial tensions, and prosecutors, who now say Zimmerman “profiled” Trayvon, charged him with second-degree murder on April 20.

It’s not clear if Zimmerman’s lawyers will claim a Stand Your Ground defense. Some experts have said it may not apply, because Zimmerman fired his gun after ending up on his back, meaning that he was not in a position to invoke the law. Other legal experts have suggested that the Stand Your Ground law should have applied to Trayvon, if anyone, because he appears to have stood his ground against an armed stranger confronting him on a dark street.

The governor's Task Force on Citizens Safety and Protection is charged with recommending whether changes need to be made to the law and, if so, what exactly those changes should be. It’s a national issue because 24 states have adopted their own Stand Your Ground laws since 2005, and this review is the first serious examination of the law.

Some legal experts say Stand Your Ground laws have dramatically shifted the burden of personal responsibility from the state to citizens.

“This is politically very dicey,” says Lance Stell, a philosophy of law professor at Davidson College, in Davidson, N.C. “It’s inflamed people who are very sensitive that there not be a racial dimension to violence and that it not be seen to authorize people to just shoot each other because of … hatred.” In that light, "the incentives are for [the panel] to say something and for it to look substantive; otherwise, they’ll face allegations that this is a whitewash.”

A separate panel, created by a state lawmaker before Governor Scott moved to assemble a review panel, made its recommendations Monday. It suggested several changes to the law, including letting grand juries, not prosecutors, decide whether the law should apply, clarifying the language of the law, and proposing a system to track Stand Your Ground defenses.

While that panel did not suggest repealing the law, its findings showed that the law may have helped those guilty of crimes escape prosecution.

“This [law] is being used in many, many cases,” state Sen. Chris Smith (D), who convened the panel, told the Miami Herald. “This is being used with a prostitute killing her john, this is being used in gang fights, this is being used everywhere.”

One member of Senator Smith’s panel, Florida International University law Prof. Joelle Anne Moreno, suggests that the law did shift the self-defense standard to a such a degree that it created opportunity for abuse and injustice. 

“The law purports to set a reasonable standard, but there’s enough ambiguity that it does create an opportunity for a level of subjective applications that I don’t think was as easy to do under the old-fashioned common regular self-defense law,” she says.

The governor’s task force intends to hold forums in different parts of Florida to get a sense of how residents perceive the law. Critics say the panel is stacked with pro-Second Amendment members, including two lawmakers who introduced the original law and who have said publicly that the law does not need to be changed. 

But task force leaders say they’re serious about investigating the law and recommending changes, if necessary. "We're going to engage the entire state of Florida to tell us the pros and cons, how they feel about these laws," the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., who is serving as vice chairman, told CNN.

The task force’s chairwoman, Lieutenant Governor Carroll, is herself an enigmatic study of the intersection of race and gun laws. Born in Trinidad, she’s been an outspoken proponent of gun rights and has in the past criticized the NAACP for hewing to left-wing causes. But she has also said conservatives should play a larger role in the civil rights organization, because it ultimately seeks equal treatment and equal justice for African-Americans.

Her position as panel chairwoman, in some ways, embodies shifting perceptions about race and gun rights, some of which clash with stereotypes.

The Trayvon Martin case itself began amid outrage over the shooting and perceptions about Zimmerman, who some painted as a racist. But revelations that Zimmerman stood up for the downtrodden, including blacks and the homeless, and has black ancestry have challenged those early judgments.

Still, the barest fact of the Trayvon Martin case – that an unarmed black teenager minding his own business was shot dead by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, originally without consequence – is a challenge to a period of liberalization for gun rights in the US.

“It would be naïve in the extreme to suggest that you could separate out the racial issues – clearly in this particular case they’re intertwined – and even if you stop speaking about Trayvon Martin, you start to speak about people’s … biases and prejudices [and how they] play into decisions when they feel afraid,” says Professor Moreno. “Hopefully, [the review of the law] will spark a broader dialogue about what kind of society we want to live in and what kind of criminal justice system we want to have.”

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