Bloomberg News

Trayvon Killing Stalls Stand Your Ground Laws

March 30, 2012

Attendee's at the National Rifle Association's 138th Annual Meetings & Exhibits on May 15, 2009 in Phoenix. Photographer: Matt York/AP Photo

Attendee's at the National Rifle Association's 138th Annual Meetings & Exhibits on May 15, 2009 in Phoenix. Photographer: Matt York/AP Photo

On the one-month anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s killing this week, the National Rifle Association was in Alaska lobbying for a law like the one at the center of the Florida shooting.

The gun rights group urged supporters to contact senators on the “stand your ground” bill, calling it “vital self- defense legislation.” A lobbyist worked the halls in gun- friendly Juneau, telling at least one senator that the highly publicized slaying of the unarmed black teen in Sanford, Florida, is “irrelevant” to the debate in Alaska, according to Senator Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat.

As the 4-million-member NRA continued its push in Alaska, it faced mounting challenges in other states. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick pledged yesterday to veto a similar bill if it made it to his desk. Legislation in New York and Iowa stalled in committees as lawmakers in Georgia, Texas and other states said they would try to repeal laws already on the books. A Florida-like measure in Minnesota was vetoed by Governor Mark Dayton on March 5, before the Martin case was widely covered in the national media.

“You have to ask why they are doubling down in the face of this case,” said French, a former prosecutor and chairman of the judiciary committee, which approved the Alaska bill last week. “You are tipping the balance in favor of more shootings. There is no other way to put it.”

Deadly Force

Florida’s 2005 law, backed by the Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA, allows the use of deadly force in a public place if someone “believes it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.” The law says there is no duty to flee the confrontation. Neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, 28, claimed self- defense and was not arrested after shooting 17-year-old Martin on Feb. 26, sparking protests around the country. Authorities said the law prevented them from charging Zimmerman.

The Florida measure was promoted as model legislation by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington-based group with corporate and state legislative members who work together to fashion policy that is then introduced in capitols throughout the country. Similar laws are now in place in about half of U.S. states, although provisions vary, according to the Legal Community Against Violence in San Francisco, which opposes the laws.

Ladd Everitt, communications director for the Washington- based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said he thinks the days when the NRA and ALEC could easily pass “stand your ground” state laws are over because of the Florida shooting.

‘Higher Hurdle’

“Even in very gun-friendly states, this case is really going to cool prospects for ‘stand your ground’ laws,” Everitt said. “If they try to push this in new states, people are going to be like ‘Number one, we see this getting people killed, but number two, why?’ It creates a higher hurdle for their lobbying effort.”

The NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, didn’t respond to calls placed to its media relations office. When Brian Judy, a lobbyist for the group, testified before Alaska’s Senate Judiciary Committee he said the measure wouldn’t change the fact that a shooting must be justified.

“Law-abiding citizens should not fear criminal prosecution when they stand their ground and defend themselves without retreating from any place they have a legal right to be,” he said, according to a recording of the March 16 hearing on the Legislature’s website.

French, who didn’t vote for or against the Alaska measure in his committee, said he’ll probably oppose the bill if it makes it to the floor of the Senate, where 12 of 20 members are co-sponsors. Representative Mark Neuman, the Wasilla Republican who sponsored the bill, didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment.

Florida Case

ALEC didn’t respond to a call placed to Kaitlyn Buss, its communications director. The legislative organization posted a statement on its website March 26, saying it was unclear whether the law it supported could apply to the Florida case.

“‘Stand Your Ground’ or ‘Castle Doctrine’ is designed to protect people who defend themselves from imminent death and great bodily harm,” according to the ALEC statement. “It does not allow you to pursue another person. It does not allow you to seek confrontation. It does not allow you to attack someone who does not pose an imminent threat.”

Florida Governor Rick Scott has created a task force to examine the 2005 law and other issues surrounding the case after the criminal investigation is over.

Marion Hammer, executive director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida, an NRA affiliate, defended the Florida law.

‘A Good Law’

“The ‘stand your ground’ law was a good law when we passed it; it’s a good law now,” Hammer, 72, who served as the NRA’s first female president from 1995-1998, said in a telephone interview. “Laws don’t do bad things. People do bad things. Those who attempt to put ‘stand your ground’ on trial do so from a very weak position.”

In New York, the Senate’s Democratic conference called on the sponsor of a similar measure to withdraw the proposal.

“It would be outrageous for New York to join” the list of states that have approved “stand your ground” bills, Senate Democrats, who are in the minority, said in a March 26 letter -- issued the same day several members donned hoodies to protest the shooting. “It is not ‘tough on crime’ to pass a bill that will let people get away with murder in New York, as it appears they are in Florida.”

Senator George Maziarz, a Republican representing Niagara Falls, who introduced the bill in January 2011, didn’t respond to calls requesting comment. Maziarz’s bill hasn’t been put to a vote.

Stuck in Committee

Massachusetts state Senator Stephen M. Brewer’s office has received dozens of calls in favor of his “stand your ground” bill and only a handful opposed, Meghan Kelly, his communications director, said by e-mail. Brewer, a Republican from Barre, has introduced the bill annually since 2007, but it has yet to get out of committee.

In Iowa, House Democrats walked out of the Capitol on Feb. 29 to delay consideration of two gun bills, including a “stand your ground” bill. The bill passed the Republican-controlled House but died when it failed to get a hearing in a Senate committee.

Supporters of the bill there focused on the case of Jay Rodney Lewis, who served more than three months in jail before he was acquitted of charges after shooting at two men in a roadside altercation in October, said Representative Clel Baudler, chairman of the public safety committee.

His House colleagues were concerned about the Des Moines incident when they passed the measure, he said in a telephone interview. The Florida case helped kill it in the Senate, he said. Baudler said he and other supporters hope to bring the bill back until it passes.

“I think when everything cools down, we will get it through some day, some year,” said Baudler, a Republican from Greenfield. “If we don’t, I trust the voters to put the right people in office to do the right thing for Iowans, not Floridians or Californians, but the right thing for Iowa.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Amanda J. Crawford in Phoenix at acrawford24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeffrey Taylor at jtaylor48@bloomberg.net


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