The Trayvon Martin Amendment Doesn't Stand a Chance

Meaningful debates on gun violence followed Newtown and Aurora, but Stand Your Ground laws remain on state books exactly as they did one year ago, when George Zimmerman fatally shot a 17-year-old walking home from a Florida convenience store.

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Tangible actions and meaningful debates on gun violence followed last year's rash of widely covered shootings, but Stand Your Ground laws remain on state books exactly as they did one year ago, when George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin. Now, hopes of reform may be fading as quickly from legislatures as they are from Zimmerman's murder trial. Such laws, which exist in 30 states across the country, grant civilians permission to use deadly force in situations where they feel they're under threat of great bodily harm. Zimmerman has invoked this defense, even though he approached Martin — who was unarmed, carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea on his way home from a Florida convenience store — and said things that could be construed as racial profiling on the phone with a 911 dispatcher.

It's impossible to observe this grim anniversary without reflecting on the unusual things that have transpired since the Sandy Hook school shootings. Washington, bucking historical precedents, did something in response. President Obama signed 23 executive actions aimed at curbing gun violence, and legislators began carving out a viable deal that would require universal background checks on all gun buyers. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne called such actions a "miracle" in light of the longstanding conventional wisdom, which held that gun control would always remain a political third rail.

There has been no such miracle on Stand Your Ground reform. But it's not for lack of effort from people like Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, who has been trying to reform Florida's Stand Your Ground laws ever since her 17-year-old son's death. Fulton and the Martin family's lawyer, Benjamin Crump, have been pushing for a "Trayvon Martin amendment" to Florida's version of Stand Your Ground. The reform, in Crump's words, would stipulate that, "You can not be the pursuer, you can not be the aggressor and say that you were standing your ground." Fulton and Crump brought this proposal before a task force convened by Florida governor Rick Scott to review citizen safety in the state, but the task force on Friday recommended preserving Stand Your Ground without alterations.

While Martin's surviving family members continue trying to amend Stand Your Ground, Florida state Rep. Alan Williams has introduced a bill that would do away with it entirely. Williams says he approves of citizens' right to bear arms, but that self-defense laws in the state need a second look. He stirred some controversy by criticizing the governor's selections for the 19-member task force that recommended keeping Stand Your Ground. "Quite possibly, if you have lawmakers who have some dissent or disagreement with the current law then maybe they would have given the opportunity," Williams told WFSU's Steven Rodriguez. Florida state Rep. Frederica Wilson has also introduced a resolution to repeal Stand Your Ground. Other legislators in the gun-friendly state told Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida that changes to Stand Your Ground aren't likely to pass. Republican Florida Senate President Don Gaetz captured the majority's attitude toward such measures when he told Menzel, "I don't plan to vote for any repeal of stand your ground or any weakening of the Second Amendment."

So, substantive reform on Stand Your Ground probably won't undergo the same seismic shift that gun reform has recently in Washington, where bills are getting broken up and expectations are lowering anyway. And some liberal voices, like The Nation's Mychal Denzel Smith, say that focussing primarily on Stand Your Ground misses the real tragedy of the Trayvon Martin shooting anyway:

The problem isn’t that we want it repealed, but that Stand Your Ground isn’t what killed Trayvon; it’s what might help George Zimmerman get away with it. And as much as I have written and advocated for reducing the number of and access to guns, it wasn’t just the gun in Zimmerman’s hand that shot Trayvon. It was a historic rendering of black men as enemies of the state, menaces to society, threats to the American way of life, that caused Trayvon to lose his life that day. How do you legislate against that?

The final twist on this story is that Stand Your Ground may not even come into play during Zimmerman's trial. The defendant's lawyers are now claiming that their client wasn't "Standing His Ground" at all, but acted under the traditional legal definition of self-defense. A hearing in April will determine the merits of Zimmerman's purported defensive measures.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.