U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday vowed to take a “hard look” at a new generation of “stand your ground” self-defense laws enacted in Florida and nearly two dozen other states, although legal analysts predicted he would face an uphill fight in repealing the statutes.
Speaking three days after the acquittal of former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., Mr. Holder told the annual gathering of the NAACP in nearby Orlando that the “stand your ground” statutes can “undermine public safety” and “victimize too many who are innocent.”
“It’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods,” Mr. Holder said, winning repeated applause from the NAACP delegates. “These laws try to fix something that was never broken.”
Although Mr. Zimmerman’s attorneys did not rely on Florida’s broad “stand your ground” law in their defense, the verdict has focused intense scrutiny of such statutes.
Singer Stevie Wonder has weighed in by vowing not to perform in any state with a “stand your ground” law on the books.
Legal analysts said the Obama administration would face a tough task, with little sign of a groundswell for change in the states that have rushed to adopt the statutes in the past eight years — even in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict.
“Even though there has been an enormous national campaign trying to blame ‘stand your ground’ laws and blowing up, unrealistically, the importance they had in this case, states have not actually done anything to repeal them,” said Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies. “Even though there have been some efforts, they have been completely unsuccessful.” Florida in 2005 was the first state to adopt a “stand your ground” law, and more than 30 states have since approved similar legislation. The draft self-defense statute, proposed and supported by the National Rifle Association, allows victims to use force if there is a reasonable perception of harm, even if the perceived threat is later found to be a false alarm.
Mr. Olson said Florida’s more expansive self-defense law has colored the debate over the “stand your ground” laws nationwide.
“What makes it complicated is when people use the phrase ‘stand your ground’ but they mean more than one thing. That has led to some of the confusion in press coverage ,” Mr. Olson said. “Florida passed a bill that had a bunch of different things in it, one of which was to move the state toward ‘stand your ground’ instead of ‘duty to retreat.’ But it also did several other things that were related to the case. People end up going down the wrong road because they don’t realize the shift in meaning of the word in that whole ‘stand your ground’ package.”
The Florida statute, for example, dropped a long-standing “duty to retreat” principle that many states still use in self-defense cases. “Duty to retreat” holds that victims must attempt to retreat from a violent confrontation before resorting to deadly force. Florida’s law also prevents an arrest once the defendant claims self-defense, and provides a special right to a hearing in self-defense cases, Mr. Olson said.
“Even though Zimmerman wound up not using [the right to a hearing], it might have affected the way police and the prosecution handled the case,” Mr. Olson said. “These provisions are sometimes lumped in with ‘stand your ground’ because they’re part of the same legal package, but they’re different issues.”
Because of the special Florida provision in self-defense claims, Mr. Zimmerman was not arrested on second-degree murder charges until nearly two months after he shot Trayvon during a struggle. Mr. Zimmerman said he fired his gun in self-defense after the youth knocked him over and began slamming Mr. Zimmerman’s head against a concrete walkway.
Most states have some form of a “stand your ground” reasoning in common and case law if not explicitly in a state statute, said Hans A. von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“This is not something new. The Supreme Court first laid out the doctrine that you’re entitled to defend yourself and stand your ground in a case back in 1895 called Beard v. United States, and this was emphasized again back in 1921 by the very famous Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes,” said Mr. Spakovsky. “I don’t see that states are going to retreat from that, to use a pun, any more than when the president tried to push through new gun control laws.”
Regardless, there has been a persistent campaign to overturn or change “stand your ground” laws ever since Mr. Zimmerman propelled Florida’s self-defense statute into the national spotlight last year. In a New York Times forum dedicated to debate on “stand your ground” laws, author and UCLA law professor Adam Winkler said Florida’s law “unambiguously authorizes people to pursue and confront others” and encourages vigilantism.