A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lawmakers from Illinois seek hearings on ‘Stand Your Ground’

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Aug. 1, 2 or 3

Two federal legislators from Illinois are leading efforts to debate on Capitol Hill the controversial law linked to the exoneration of Florida vigilante George Zimmerman for fatally shooting unarmed teen Trayvon Martin.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, on July 19 said he’ll hold hearings in his Senate Judiciary Subcommittee this fall on "Stand Your Ground" laws throughout the country, and he’ll examine the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) in promoting the statute, which has been approved in some form in dozens of states.

Durbin's office also plans to examine the legal definition of self defense, how such laws have affected shooting confrontations, and how such laws contribute to racial profiling.

ALEC is a group of state legislators and business lobbyists funded by some of the biggest corporations in the world. The organization drafts legislation ranging from voter-ID laws to Stand Your Ground (SYG) language as national models.

What exactly is “Stand Your Ground”?

Florida’s statute (Title XLVI, 776.013 [3]) reads, “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

Dozens of states have adopted versions of the measure, which has been criticized for years.

On the House side, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois’ 4th District, asked House Judiciary Committee Chair Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) to hold hearings, too.

“Even as crime has gone down across the nation, fear of crime, fear of violence, and fear of fellow Americans seems to be ever increasing,” Gutierrez said. “When the gun industry exploits this fear to pass laws favorable to their products at the national, state and local levels, we are creating conditions where death and injury are the only possible result.”

In the Zimmerman case, it’s not illogical, legally, to vote “not guilty” when giving SYG greater weight than other evidence, such as the “neighborhood watch” volunteer’s defying police orders, profiling someone who’d committed no crime or essentially stalking him. One juror publicly said that Florida’s SYG law did influence the jury in voting to acquit the gunman.

The NRA may come under scrutiny, too, because besides helping write SYG language and taking it to ALEC for promotion, the NRA was instrumental in approving jury instructions, conceded NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer, who wanted to ensure juries are told there’s no “duty to retreat.”

There are serious, dangerous flaws in SYG laws, of course.

There was already a presumption of innocence for someone using a gun (and someone walking down the street!) without endorsing gunplay.

Such laws foster vigilantism by legitimizing assumptions that can exaggerate the actual degree of threat from “suspicious” people whose real intent is unknown.

SYG laws require law enforcement officials to prove that a suspect did NOT act in self-defense. This burden of proof is a huge change. How can police or prosecutors reasonably prove motive strictly on circumstantial evidence – when the victim might be dead?

Also, the standard of proof is no longer “being threatened,” but “FEELING threatened,”

Arguably, Stand Your Ground laws amount to a “shoot-first” policy, a “license to kill.”

President Obama recently addressed concerns about the law, saying, “For those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these ‘stand your ground’ laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws."

ALEC, after complaints from some of its corporate patrons, has tried to distance itself from Stand Your Ground laws by claiming that it stopped endorsing gun bills. However, neither ALEC nor the NRA has called for SYG’s repeal.

Maybe Congress will.

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