Developing Trend in Gun Legislation: The Trayvon Martin Exception to Stand Your Ground Laws

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Yesterday jury selection began in the murder trial of Michael Dunn who shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Witnesses say Dunn became enraged at Davis for playing music too loudly and provoked a confrontation that resulted in Dunn shooting and killing the unarmed teenager.

Dunn will likely base his defense on Florida’s stand your ground law—better described as a “shoot first” law—that allows someone to use deadly force outside the home if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. Florida’s law, as well as similar laws in several other states, does not require that the person using force retreat to a place of safety, if possible, before using force.

Eight months before Jordan Davis was killed, George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager walking to his father’s girlfriend’s house. By now, most of us know the story. Although Florida’s shoot first law was not incorporated into George Zimmerman’s defense, the court had instructed the jury on Florida’s controversial law and one of the jurors subsequently stated that the jury had found the law applicable to Zimmerman.

Again, a few weeks ago, yet another person behaving lawfully in public was shot and killed. Chad Oulson, who was texting his 3-year-old daughter’s caretaker during movie previews, angered Curtis Reeves, an armed, retired police officer. Reeves began to argue with Oulson. A confrontation ensued and Reeves shot and killed Oulson. Reeves is expected to also claim self-defense using Florida’s shoot first law.

A 17-year-old playing music in a car. A 16-year-old walking to see his father.  A father texting the babysitter during movie previews. These are only a fraction of the victims. These tragic events also demonstrate how shoot first laws continue to threaten public safety by encouraging people to take the law into their own hands and act as armed vigilantes, often with deadly consequences. The strongest of these laws also have a profound impact on the criminal and civil justice systems, tying the hands of law enforcement and depriving victims of remedies by providing blanket immunity from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits to individuals who claim they were acting in self-defense.

Many states have had enough of this bloodshed and lawmakers have introduced legislation to repeal or limit the use of shoot first laws. Most notably, Alabama has introduced the “Trayvon Martin exception” as an amendment to its current shoot first law. The new legislation aims to protect innocent victims like Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Chad Oulson. The bill would prohibit use of the self-defense claim if a shooter pursued the victim who was behaving lawfully in a public place and the pursuit resulted in a deadly confrontation. Continue reading

Law Center Provides Testimony for Senator Durbin’s Stand Your Ground Hearing

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Today, Senator Durbin held a hearing to review stand your ground laws nationwide. The Law Center was proud to be invited to share our written testimony outlining our research and analysis of these dangerous laws.

As Senator Durbin said this morning, “Whatever the motivations were behind the passage of these laws, it is clear that these laws often go too far in encouraging confrontations to escalate into deadly violence…They are resulting in unnecessary tragedies, and they are diminishing accountability under the justice system.” We couldn’t agree more. Research into so-called “stand your ground” laws – also known as “shoot first” laws – provides insight into these deadly policies.

As outlined in the our written testimony, shoot first laws significantly threaten public safety because they frustrate the ability of law enforcement to prosecute criminals, encourage vigilante behavior, and deprive victims of remedies. Because such laws are most dangerous when coupled with weak laws governing the carrying of concealed weapons in public, Congress should avoid enacting any new federal legislation that would force states to recognize concealed weapons permits issued in other states.

Read the Law Center’s written testimony for the stand your ground law hearing.

See our shoot first policy summary for more on stand your ground laws nationwide.

Honoring Trayvon Martin

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On Saturday, we were deeply disappointed by the news that George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin. Justice is not served when a man carrying a loaded, concealed handgun in public is allowed to stalk and kill an unarmed teenager without consequence.

Sadly, Florida’s extremely weak gun laws set the stage for Trayvon Martin’s senseless death. Under the state’s concealed weapons laws, George Zimmerman was issued a permit to carry a hidden gun, despite the fact that he had previously been arrested for assaulting a police officer and had a history of domestic violence. If Zimmerman had not been carrying a gun that night, Trayvon Martin would still be alive today.

Florida’s “shoot first” law only exacerbated the danger by removing Zimmerman’s duty to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense in public. These laws promote gun violence by shielding shooters from criminal liability for death or great bodily injury, even when such death or injury could have been avoided.

As a nation, we must learn from Trayvon Martin’s death that more guns in public do not make us safer, and use this tragedy as an opportunity to closely evaluate our nation’s gun laws.

As President Obama observed, the way to honor Trayvon Martin is to “ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis” and to focus on how we can prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.

Preventing unnecessary gun deaths starts with education.

Learn more about your state’s concealed weapons policies or read our summary of “shoot first” laws for more information.

Success Story: Legislators and Policy Makers Respond to Public Outcry Over Shoot First Laws

On June 8, 2012, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law a measure requiring a full investigation of any death that results from violence or under suspicious circumstances when a claim of self-defense is raised. A law enacted in Alabama on May 22, 2012 modifies the existing law that provides property owners with immunity from civil liability for injuring or killing a trespasser in self-defense, so that immunity is provided only if the property owner reacted reasonably to the circumstances.  Several other states considered amending or repealing “shoot first” laws this year (including Michigan, North Carolina, Mississippi and South Carolina). In addition, the conservative, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that developed the model shoot first law recently announced that it was disbanding the task force responsible for its creation.

See our Shoot First Resources for a more detailed discussion of this issue.

Want to see more success stories? You can find them here.

Trayvon Martin Tragedy Reverberates in Nevada

Trayvon Martin Tragedy Reverberates in Nevada
Paul Takahashi, Las Vegas Sun, April 11, 2012

In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting tragedy in Florida, many states rethink their own “shoot first” laws, and communities struggle with the racial and public safety implications of such laws and their consequences.  This article chronicles a forum held at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas that attempts to make sense of the shooting – and the state’s “shoot first” law.

Companies Pressured Over Ties to “Stand Your Ground” Group

Companies Pressured Over Ties to ‘Stand Your Ground’ Group
James O’Toole, CNN Money, April 10, 2012

Following the Trayvon Martin shooting, advocates against Florida’s broad – and controversial – “shoot first” law put pressure on companies to cut ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that actively promoted Florida’s “shoot first” law to state legislatures across the country.

Trayvon Martin Case Has Some Looking at Nevada’s Self-defense Law

Trayvon Martin Case Has Some Looking at Nevada’s New Self-defense Law
Karoun Demirjian, Las Vegas Sun, April 1, 2012

This article looks at Nevada’s recently-adopted “shoot first” self-defense law, in light of the recent Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida.  Florida has one of the broadest – and most dangerous – “shoot first” law in the nation, and the Nevada statute is similar in scope.