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How Trayvon Martin Case Could Affect ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws Across U.S.

April 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
A grand jury will not investigate the death of Trayvon Martin -- the unarmed black teenager shot in a gated community in February, a special prosecutor said Monday. Gwen Ifill and Daniel Webster of Johns Hopkins' Center for Gun Policy and Research discuss the case's potential effects on other states' "stand your ground" laws.
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GWEN IFILL: There will be no grand jury to investigate the February shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. A jury had been expected to convene tomorrow to decide whether to bring charges against the shooter, George Zimmerman. But, for now, the investigation remains unresolved. The outcome could cast a spotlight on laws already on the books around the country.

The dispute over the killing of Trayvon Martin has sparked a national debate about race, justice, and when it is reasonable to act in self-defense. In declining to impanel a grand jury to look into the case, state attorney Angela Corey will now tackle those issues herself.

“The decision should not be considered a factor in the final determination of the case,” the prosecutor said in a written statement. “At this time, the investigation continues and there will be no further comment from this office.”

Martin, who was black, was on his way to a convenience store in a mostly white gated community when George Zimmerman, who is white, shot and killed him after a disputed altercation. Martin, who was carrying only candy and a soft drink, was discovered by police lying face down in the grass. Zimmerman was briefly taken into custody, but has not been arrested.

Law enforcement officials have cited a state law that ties their hands when a citizen says he is acting in self-defense. More than two dozen states have similar laws dubbed “Stand Your Ground,” which allows deadly force in certain circumstances. Florida’s law passed by bipartisan majorities in 2005, but some lawmakers have said it was never intended to prevent investigations.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush signed the law.

JEB BUSH (R), Former Florida governor: Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back.

GWEN IFILL: And Democratic Sen. Chris Smith convened a task force on the matter last week.

CHRIS SMITH, D-Fla., state senator: If you initiate contact or if you start the fight, you should at least go in front of a jury and present your evidence and let peers decide, not some big veil that you’re not even able to be arrested.

GWEN IFILL: Instead of dying down, the protests over the Martin case are continuing.

For more on what is happening in the states, we’re joined by Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

Welcome.

This expansion of gun laws — we just saw that map — is that organic or is it something that’s been planned?

DANIEL WEBSTER, Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research: Oh, it’s definitely been planned.

The National Rifle Association has been on a many-year effort first to expand rights to be — for individuals who can pass a background check to be able to carry concealed guns pretty much wherever they want. As they started to accomplish that goal, they then went on to the stand your ground laws. And those laws have passed very rapidly in a very short amount of time.

GWEN IFILL: It was interesting that so many Democrats voted for this. It was just a bipartisan idea? Was this an idea that was meant — felt — was there a case made that this was a problem that existed that these needed to solve?

DANIEL WEBSTER: Well, certainly, the proponents of these laws felt that there was a problem.

I have been studying violence for about 20 years. I didn’t see that problem myself.

GWEN IFILL: So what has happened in these cases in all of these states? Are they different cases or are they all blanket cases? Because you just heard Jeb Bush say this wasn’t about pursuing someone. This was about staying put.

Or does it change from state to state to state?

DANIEL WEBSTER: Well, there are some differences across states, but I think mostly it’s the same general idea, that it relieves an individual from any duty to retreat, which used to be the law of the land for many, many years.

GWEN IFILL: So is it possible that people never had this protection before in the law as they existed, the protection, the right to self-defense?

DANIEL WEBSTER: Well, they did within their home. If someone is coming into your home with some sort of criminal intent, generally, the law was quite protective of individuals using guns or other kinds of force in those cases.

What’s different here about the stand your ground laws is that they expand that notion, that even outside your home, whereas it used to be the case if you thought someone posed some threat to you and you could simply get away from them, that’s what you were — the law said you needed to do.

Now it’s a totally different situation. And if you can prove any kind of perceived threat, presumably, you can use lethal force, even if the threat you perceived wasn’t even lethal. And so there’s very big differences.

GWEN IFILL: You have been studying this for a while. Has the force of gun rights activity and gun control activity moved from the federal government now to the state level?

DANIEL WEBSTER: Well, that’s been the case for very long.

They try to do whatever they can at the federal level, each side of the issue, advocates on each side of the gun debate. But they have found that it is often quite easier to get things done at the state level.

GWEN IFILL: When you say the National Rifle Association — and there’s another group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been very active in state capitals — when you say they have been involved in trying to get these laws passed, what do you mean by involvement? Are they just writing checks and lobbying? Are they writing the legislation? How does this work?

DANIEL WEBSTER: Both, both writing legislation, writing checks, lobbying, mobilizing.

What the NRA of course is — people talk about the money component, but really they’re a grassroots organization. So they get their constituents mobilized. Legislators hear from them that they want these types of laws.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned that this has been under way for some time. In fact, this Florida law has been on the books since 2005.

What is it about? Or has — or am I just overinterpreting this? What is it about this Trayvon Martin case that seems to have brought the spotlight on to these laws? Has it? And does it affect what people have been put in — laws that are already in the pipeline?

DANIEL WEBSTER: I don’t know if it’s going to affect laws already in the pipeline.

I think, getting to your initial question about sort of what is it unique about this, because these laws have been around for a while. . .

GWEN IFILL: Right.

DANIEL WEBSTER: . . . I think there were some unique circumstances here, an individual who had called repeatedly 911, was pursuing someone who was unarmed, an unarmed teenager.

So I think that the fact that, with media, whenever you have recordings or other kinds of things, that will help you make that a case.

GWEN IFILL: So the extent of this suddenly was brought to people’s attention by this one spectacular case.

Are there other laws in the pipeline, gun control or gun rights laws in the pipeline that, maybe in five years, we will be looking at and saying, hey, they were passing these at the time, too? Are there other activities under way?

DANIEL WEBSTER: Well, at the federal level right now, the effort most relevant to the case we’re talking about now with Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin is a bill that would make it so that the relatively few number of states — about 10 states have laws that allow law enforcement to use their discretion issuing permits for concealed carry of firearms.

The bill under consideration would make it so that you would have to — a state would have to honor a concealed carry permit from any state in the United States. So, Florida, for example, has one of the least restrictive, most permissive types of laws. And people are already getting permits from Florida that they use in other states that allow that.

But the congressional — what’s under consideration in Congress now would make it so that across the board, states like Maryland, for example, that have what’s called a may issue concealed carry, would have to honor permits from states with very lax standards.

GWEN IFILL: Okay.

Well, we’ll be watching all of those, of course.

Daniel Webster, the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy, thank you so much for joining us.

DANIEL WEBSTER: Thank you.