In the days after unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was shot dead in Florida, Georgia Representative Rashad Taylor raced to undo his state’s version of a self- defense law that may shield Martin’s killer.
The odds are against his success, Taylor said -- even after nationwide public protests over the Martin case and laws adopted in about half the states that expand the justifiable use of lethal force for self defense. Taylor, 31, faces multiple obstacles: He’s a Democrat in a Republican-controlled Legislature that has favored gun rights.
“It’s definitely going to be an uphill battle,” said Taylor, elected in 2008 to the state’s House of Representatives. “People feel their right to bear arms is being threatened.”
Gun-control advocates are finding it difficult to capitalize on outrage over the Martin case. The dynamics are similar in other states where efforts are under way to weaken or repeal the National Rifle Association-backed measures known as Stand Your Ground. Lawmakers have introduced rollbacks in South Carolina and Louisiana and say they plan to in Wisconsin and Texas.
The laws typically extend traditional self-defense rights beyond homes to allow lethal force in public in response to a perceived threat. When people feel they are in danger, they have the right to respond with force even if they can retreat.
Proponents say the measures allow people to defend themselves, while opponents argue they encourage vigilantes and put public safety at risk.
The Martin shooting focused attention on the laws. Martin, 17, was killed in February by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, 28, followed Martin, who was walking through a residential neighborhood after a trip to a convenience store. Zimmerman said he fired in self defense.
Zimmerman was arrested this month and charged with second- degree murder after public protests. His lawyers have said he will plead not guilty. The Stand Your Ground law may make him hard to convict, Florida defense attorneys have said.
The killing of the black youth by a man whose father is white and mother Hispanic sparked protests, a federal civil- rights investigation and comment from President Barack Obama, who said that if he had a son, the child would have looked like Martin.
Governor Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican, ordered a panel to review the state’s Stand Your Ground law.
Gun-control advocates have tried without success to persuade lawmakers to pass more restrictive laws after previous shootings, including a 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech that killed 32 and the attempted assassination of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona last year.
“It’s hard to get hopeful for reform, given the inability of gun-control advocates to get laws adopted,” said Adam Winkler, a University of California, Los Angeles law professor who wrote a book on the subject. “Lawmakers are practically falling over each other to pass new, less restrictive gun laws.”
“These laws were largely the product of the NRA,” he said. “They’re not going to back down.”
Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, said he’s ready to fight off challenges.
“The answer to any problem is never restricting the rights of law-abiding people to defend themselves,” Cox said in an interview. “We have this right. We’re going to fight for this right. We’re going to defend the statutes that protect lawful people for using guns for self-defense.”
Florida lawmakers in 2005 passed a Stand Your Ground law that empowers residents to “meet force with force.” Other states followed.
South Carolina Representative Bakari Sellers, a Democrat who authored a measure that would repeal his state’s law, said he “wouldn’t put any real money” on his chances of its getting approved.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a long-time advocate of gun control, this month in Washington called for Stand Your Ground laws to be repealed, saying they’re a “license to murder.” The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Some legislatures won’t reconvene until next year, creating another challenge for those trying to roll back the measures: They may lose momentum as memory of the Martin case fades.
“Time sometimes does take out some of the momentum,” said Glenn Ivey, a lawyer with the firm Venable LLP in Washington who joined with Mayor Bloomberg to call for the laws to be challenged. “Clearly, the gun lobby’s going to push back to keep these laws in place, but whether they’re going to be able to do that is an open question.”
In the aftermath of the Martin shooting, Coca-Cola Co. (KO:US) and Kraft Foods Inc. (KFT:US) this week withdrew support from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that promoted Stand Your Ground laws. ALEC, which lets corporate representatives work with state lawmakers to draft bills, said it would shift its focus to economic issues. Meanwhile, efforts to expand Stand Your Ground Laws in Alaska and Iowa stalled after the Martin shooting.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Representative Tamara Grigsby said efforts to scuttle the state’s Stand Your Ground will hinge on whether Governor Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans hold power after June recall elections.
“We’re holding out hope those numbers will change,” she said. “As long as Republicans run the show, they are going to get even more radical.”
Louisiana Representative Roy Burrell, a Democrat, proposed legislation to forbid the use of deadly force against someone who is running away. It would be impossible to repeal the state’s Stand Your Ground law because Republicans control the Legislature, he said.
“Politically, I don’t think I can get that passed,” he said. “Sometimes, you can’t eat the elephant all at once. You’ve got to eat it piece by piece.”
In Georgia, where the Legislature has adjourned until January, five Democrats joined with Taylor to back the measure seeking to strike that state’s law.
Representative Tyrone Brooks said he is backing the measure to support Taylor and doesn’t see any chance of it advancing. He said he’s more interested in targeting racial profiling and voiced doubts about the need to change Georgia’s law.
“It’s getting a bad rap because of what George Zimmerman did,” he said. “Zimmerman is an aberration. He’s not the norm.”
Taylor said it may take him two or three years to build enough popular support to get his measure passed.
“There has been a number of times where people say enough is enough, and I am hoping that will be the case,” he said.
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