The passage of a string of state "stand your ground" self-defense laws in recent years produced a partisan divide on Capitol Hill, with Democrats saying the laws have led to increased gun violence, often targeting minorities, while Republicans questioning the need for a hearing on the issue at all.
The laws came into the national spotlight with the February 2012 shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder charges earlier this year, although the state's Stand Your Ground statute was not directly involved in the verdict.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who chaired a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing Tuesday on the laws, said the laws encourage individuals to use violent and sometimes lethal forms of self-defense instead of exhausting all other peaceful options. When the "stand your ground" defense is used in prosecutions, the verdicts tend to discriminate against minorities, Mr. Durbin said.
According to Mr. Durbin, 17 percent of homicides involving white shooters and black victims were justified under "stand your ground" compared to 1 percent of cases involving black shooters with white victims.
"These laws allow shooters to walk away in shocking situations," he said.
But some Republicans on the subcommittee said Congress was overstepping its boundaries by questioning the states' authority to set their own gun laws.
"If it is not within Congress' jurisdiction to discuss the laws," said Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, "it raises the question of if there is a higher political agenda behind this hearing."
Mr. Cruz said the bigger problem to address was the Obama administration's failure to prosecute real gun violence cases. He declared "indefensible" a 27 percent decline in gun crime prosecution in the past year, coupled with only 44 criminal prosecutions of the some 48,000 fugitives or individuals with criminal convictions who tried to purchase guns.
A "stand your ground" law states that a person may use deadly force in defending himself — without the duty to retreat when facing a reasonable perceived threat. The laws expand on the so-called "castle doctrine," which restricts the use of self-defense more closely to the defense of one's home or property.
Among those testifying Tuesday was Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, who described how her son had simply gone to the store to get a drink and some candy when he encountered Mr. Zimmerman on his way home and was shot.
"He was not going to buy cigarettes or bullets or condoms or any items of that nature," she said. "This shows his mentality, he was not the criminal that the person who shot and killed him thought he was."
Ms. Fulton said that because of the trial verdict and "stand your ground" laws, minority children in her community no longer feel like they are protected by the law. "Our kids don't feel safe walking to the store to get candy and a drink," she said.
The Justice Department has said it is reviewing whether to prosecute Mr. Zimmerman under federal criminal civil rights statutes.
Mr. Cruz noted that "stand your ground" was not the main defense that Mr. Zimmerman used and that Congress was using the case to inflame racial tensions. "Sadly, members of political office have a tendency to exploit this tragedy," Mr. Cruz said.
More emotional testimony came from Lucia McBath, who struggled to hold back tears as she recounted how her only child, Jordan Davis, was shot in Jacksonville, Fla., last November. Michael David Dunn is charged with opening fire on a Dodge Durango with four teenagers inside, including 17-year-old Jordan, after complaining that their music was too loud and that he saw a gun in the car. Mr. Dunn is scheduled for trial next year on one count of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder.
"I am here to tell you there was no ground to stand, there was no threat," Ms. McBath said Tuesday. "No one was trying to invade his home, his vehicle, nor threaten him or his family."
But "stand your ground" proponents noted that governors in 20 states, including eight Democrats, have signed self-defense statutes, and that some of the country's most violent places are not covered by the law.
"If Sen. Durbin is truly interested in making Americans safer, he should compel Attorney General Eric Holder to testify over what Mayor Rahm Emmanuel called the federal government's "horrible" effort of prosecuting criminals with firearms in Chicago — America's murder capital in Durbin's home state," said Chris W. Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.
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