'Stand your ground' laws rattle US politics, society

The George Zimmerman murder case in Florida focused attention on the state's controversial 'stand-your-ground' law. Critics want to repeal such laws, but that seems unlikely. At least 22 states have 'stand-your-ground' laws.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Jaquin Nelson, 6, wears a hooded sweatshirt during a church service in New Orleans Sunday as part of a “Hoody Sabbath,” in reaction to a Florida jury's acquittal of George Zimmerman, who was found not guilty in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law was the specter hanging over the trial of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.

Mr. Zimmerman’s legal team did not use “stand your ground” as part of its successful defense against murder and manslaughter charges. But the judge cited the law, chapter and verse, in her instructions to the six-woman jury that set Zimmerman free.

Now, “stand your ground” is the focus of political and public debate – featuring elements of gun control, race relations, and criminal justice – over how to act in ways that prevent such deadly violence.

More than 100 cities and towns across the country held “Justice for Trayvon” rallies Saturday at which “stand your ground” was a featured issue.

“We are trying to change laws so that this never, ever happens again,” civil rights activist and MSNBC host Al Sharpton told the crowd in New York.

Speaking earlier in the week to a NAACP convention in Orlando, US Attorney General Eric Holder said, "It's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods,” an obvious reference to “stand your ground” laws.

In his unusual comments on race to reporters in the White House press room Friday, President Obama was more explicit.

“If we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see?” he asked.

In the Zimmerman case, the President continued: “If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”

Speaking on CNN Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said a review of what he called such “very controversial legislation” would be appropriate.

After its August recess, a Senate judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing on “stand your ground” laws, chairman Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois said Friday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee on Constitution, civil rights and human rights “will examine the gun lobby’s and the American Legislative Exchange Council’s influence in creating and promoting these laws; the way in which the laws have changed the legal definition of self-defense; the extent to which the laws have encouraged unnecessary shooting confrontations; and the civil rights implications when racial profiling and ‘stand your ground’ laws mix, along with other issues,” Sen. Durbin said in a statement.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a conservative business and political organization that provides model legislation to state governments. That has included “stand your ground” bills backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Democrats in the Florida state legislature are pushing for repeal of the 2005 law.

"This bill actually encourages people to shoot their way out of situations and that's not how we live in a civilized society," Senate Democratic leader Chris Smith told a news conference this past week. "It's a mentality that has permeated the state of Florida. It's a mentality of shoot first, and we should not have that in a civilized society."

But will any of this make much difference?

The fact that Obama weighed in about  stand-your-ground laws, the focus of those demonstrations, will help "set a tone for both direct action, and needed dialogue," the Rev. Sharpton told the rally in New York.

But the Associated Press has found scant support for repeal of the laws in Florida and elsewhere.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures at least 21 states have laws similar to Florida’s (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia). Other tallies have put the number of such states closer to 30.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) told reporters Thursday that he agreed with the findings of a task force he appointed on the subject after Trayvon Martin's shooting, which recommended no changes to the stand-your-ground law.

In fact, in states with laws similar to Florida's, the trend has been toward greater gun rights.

In Oklahoma, for example, lawmakers in 2012 passed an "open-carry" measure that allows people with a concealed carry permit to now display their handguns openly in a holster. Other states have sought to expand what are known as "castle doctrine" laws – the right to defend one's self with deadly force in the home – to apply to businesses, the AP reports.

New Hampshire lawmakers this year considered repealing the state's-stand-your ground law, which was enacted in 2011 by a Republican Legislature over a Democratic governor's veto. After narrowly passing the Democratic-led House in March, the bill died in the Republican-led Senate.

To the NRA, questioning the legitimacy of “stand your ground” is just one more part of the Obama administration’s effort to impose gun controls in violation of the Second Amendment.

"The attorney general fails to understand that self-defense is not a concept, it's a fundamental human right," Chris W. Cox, executive director NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement responding to Holder’s remarks to the NAACP. "To send a message that legitimate self-defense is to blame is unconscionable, and demonstrates once again that this administration will exploit tragedies to push their political agenda." 

Meanwhile, at least one prominent entertainer vows not to perform in Florida and other states where “stand your ground” laws are in force.

"I decided today that until the 'stand your ground' law is abolished in Florida, I will never perform there again," Stevie Wonder told the audience at a concert in Quebec the day after the not-guilty verdict in the Zimmerman case was announced. "As a matter of fact, wherever I find that law exists, I will not perform in that state or in that part of the world."

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