Trayvon Martin’s mother asks Congress to clarify ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws

October 29, 2013

Updated 1:27 p.m.

The mother of Trayvon Martin is calling on lawmakers to work with state and local official to roll back or clarify the purpose of "Stand Your Ground" laws, saying that George Zimmerman's misinterpretation of the law led to the death of her son.

Sybrina Fulton recounted for senators Tuesday that the night Zimmerman killed Martin, her son "was simply going to the store to get snacks -- nothing more, nothing less. He was not going to get cigarettes or bullets or condoms or other items of that nature. He was not the criminal that the person who shot and killed him thought he was."

Fulton spoke at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing held to explore issues surrounding "Stand Your Ground" laws in the more than 30 states that have some version of the law. The hearing was originally scheduled for mid-September, but was postponed in the wake of the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.

In addition to Fulton, the panel heard from several academics and Lucy McBath, whose 17-year old son, Jordan Davis, was killed in Jacksonville, Fla., last November by a gunman who has claimed he was acting in self-defense.

Fulton spoke extemporaneously, but in her prepared written testimony she said that she is not seeking to restrict legal gun ownership. "I only want to see the laws surrounding self-defense clarified so that they are applied logically and most importantly, consistently."

"Stand Your Ground" laws should be amended "to include language that clarifies its original intent," she said, citing comments by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who signed Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law and said at the time that " 'Stand Your Ground’ means stand your ground. It doesn't mean chase after somebody who's turned their back.”

The Florida-passed law "certainly did not work in my case," Fulton said. "The person that shot and killed my son is walking the streets today and this law does not work. We need to seriously take a look at this law, we need to seriously speak with the state attorney’s office, the police departments, more attorneys, we need to do something about this law when our kids cannot feel safe in their own community."

A Florida jury acquitted Zimmerman of charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter in July.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights and human rights, said that it is time for "Stand Your Ground" laws "to be carefully reviewed and reconsidered. Whatever the motivation behind them, it's clear these laws often go too far in encouraging confrontations that escalate into deadly violence. They're resulting in unnecessary tragedies and they are diminishing accountability under our justice system."

Durbin cited data to suggest that the laws have increased racial disparity in the nation's criminal justice system. An unnamed study he cited found that in states with the laws, nearly 17 percent of homicides involving white shooters and black victims were ruled justified, compared to 1 percent of homicides with black shooters and white victims.

But Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the subcommittee's ranking member, sought to downplay the idea that “Stand Your Ground” laws adversely affect minorities -- particularly African Americans.

“In Florida, the data show that African American defendants have availed themselves of the ‘Stand Your Ground’ defense more frequently than have Anglo defendants,” Cruz said.

Cruz noted that the law is only supposed to apply when someone is defending themselves from a violent attacker and that the courts are in place to make that determination.

“I find the notion that we say, if you and your family are attacked on the street, you don’t have a right to defend yourself – I find that an astonishing proposition, and one that I certainly hope members of the U.S. Senate will not advocate,” Cruz said.

Later, Cruz said it was "sad and irresponsible" to see outside groups seek to undermine the Zimmerman verdict and the case's jury "to inflame racial tensions."

Speaking to Fulton, Cruz said: "I recognize that for the family you’re simply mourning the loss of your son, but there are other players who are seeking to do a great deal more based on what happened that Florida night."

Update 1:42 p.m.: National Rifle Association head Chris Cox releases the following statement:

"Stand Your Ground laws have been signed by governors in 20 states, including eight Democratic governors, two of whom – Kathleen Sebelius (Kan.) and Janet Napolitano (Ariz.) – were appointed to Cabinet positions by President Obama. 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."

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