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Officials plan to take closer look at stand-your-ground laws
Posted 6/9/2012 12:19 PM ET
Federal and state officials plan to take a closer look at stand-your-ground laws following the national uproar over the death of Trayvon Martin.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced Friday that it will launch a special investigation into how race affects the enforcement of stand-your-ground laws across the nation. A task force Tuesday convened by Florida's governor shortly after the shooting of Trayvon will hold its first public hearing on the law in that state.

"There is an absolute lack of real data or information about how these stand-your-ground laws have been or are applied," said Michael Yaki, commissioner of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "We need to make sure claims of justifiable homicide are not being granted or denied because of the color of someone's skin."

Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic, is charged with the Feb. 26 fatal shooting of Trayvon, an unarmed black 17-year-old, in a gated Sanford, Fla. community. A neighborhood watch volunteer, Zimmerman says he shot Trayvon in self-defense after being attacked.

Police initially did not charge Zimmerman with a crime, citing Florida's stand-your-ground law, which states that a person does not have to retreat in the face of a threat and can use deadly force if fearing danger of death or serious harm.

The commission plans to gather data from various states with stand-your-ground laws similar to Florida and interview law enforcement officials nationwide, Yaki said. At least 21 states have some variation of the law.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott assembled the Task Force on Citizens Safety and Protection to review the state's law. The group — whose members include law enforcement officers, politicians, and community leaders — will hold several meetings across the state to hear public comments about the law and prepare a report for Republican Scott.

"We want the testimonies and the facts to guide us to our final conclusion," said the Rev. Dr. R. B. Holmes, Jr., vice chair of the task force.

State Rep. Dennis Baxley, who sponsored the state's law, also sits on the task force and said officials should proceed cautiously in their review. "A lot of the data still shows that it has been very effective in protecting people from harm and acts of violence," he said.

Baxley, a Republican, added that the statute itself does not discriminate between gender or race and that a study might bring to light problems in how it is applied.

Meanwhile, the Trayvon Martin shooting and statistics that show disparities in how stand your ground laws are applied to white shooters versus black shooters sparked Yaki's interest.

"The key fact that made me start to question this is that the night that Trayvon was killed, the police decided that Zimmerman was entitled to stand your ground and released him," Yaki said. "Absent the uproar by Trayvon's family and social media, this would have been an unreported statistic."

John Roman, a fellow with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, analyzed homicides in the U.S. from 2005 to 2009. He found that homicides are twice as likely to be ruled justifiable in stand-your-ground states and that in many incidents police can't arrest shooters and question them in detail, even though interviews are critical in cases like this.

He also pointed out that, according to data by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 34% of cases involving a white shooter killing a black person were deemed as a justifiable homicide. Meanwhile, in similar situations, when the shooter was black and the victim was white, the homicide was ruled justifiable only 3.3% of the time.

"The numbers are so different, it's absolutely worth doing a study to figure this out," Roman said.

Trayvon's parents and members of the Second Chance on Shoot First campaign, a coalition that includes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the NAACP, and the National Urban League, will hold a rally. The group plans to present a petition signed by 340,000 people online asking the task force and state legislators to reform or repeal the state's stand-your-ground law.

"We will be doing everything in our power to make sure these hearings broadly and accurately reflect the reality of shoot first laws," said Chris Brown, a spokesman for the campaign. "We hope to demonstrate that the public is concerned about the recklessness of these laws and the negative impact they have in making communities safe."

Posted 6/9/2012 12:19 PM ET
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, has set up a task force to review the state's stand-your-ground law.
By J. Pat Carter, AP
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, has set up a task force to review the state's stand-your-ground law.