'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.
Floridaâs controversial âstand your groundâ 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. Zimmermanâs legal team did not use âstand your groundâ 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, âstand your groundâ is the focus of political and public debate â featuring elements of gun control, race relations, and criminal justice â over how to act in ways that prevent such deadly violence.
More than 100 cities and towns across the country held âJustice for Trayvonâ rallies Saturday at which âstand your groundâ was a featured issue.
âWe are trying to change laws so that this never, ever happens again,â 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,â an obvious reference to âstand your groundâ laws.
In his unusual comments on race to reporters in the White House press room Friday, President Obama was more explicit.
âIf 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?â he asked.
In the Zimmerman case, the President continued: âIf Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?Â 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?Â 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.â
Speaking on CNN Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said a review of what he called such âvery controversial legislationâ would be appropriate.
After its August recess, a Senate judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing on âstand your groundâ laws, chairman Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois said Friday.
TheÂ Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee on Constitution, civil rights and human rightsÂ âwill examine the gun lobbyâs and the American Legislative Exchange Councilâs 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 âstand your groundâ laws mix, along with other issues,â 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 âstand your groundâ 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 SmithÂ 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 aboutÂ stand-your-groundÂ 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 Floridaâs (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 â the right to defend one's self with deadly force in the home â 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 âstand your groundâ is just one more part of the Obama administrationâs 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 Holderâs 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."Â
Meanwhile, at least one prominent entertainer vows not to perform in Florida and other states where âstand your groundâ 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."