The mother of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin told a congressional panel that “stand-your-ground” self-defense laws are confusing, open to abuse and should be changed.
“Trayvon was minding his own business” as he went to a store to buy a drink and candy, Sybrina Fulton said today during a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing in Washington. “He was not the criminal that the person who shot and killed him thought he was.”
Stand-your-ground laws let individuals use lethal force instead of retreating if they feel threatened with death or serious injury in public by another person. Similar laws have been adopted in 25 states in addition to Florida, said subcommittee Chairman Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Such laws have led to increases in homicides and shooting injuries without deterring crimes such as robbery and assault, Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said. Studies show that shootings of black people by whites are more often ruled to be justified than shootings of white people by blacks, he said.
“These laws often go too far in encouraging confrontations that escalate into deadly violence,” Durbin said. “They are resulting in unnecessary tragedies, and they are diminishing accountability under our justice system.”
Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said self-defense “is a bedrock liberty of every American” and such laws are the responsibility of state governments. The federal government should increase its prosecutions for illegal gun purchases and violent gun crimes, he said.
“The stand-your-ground law does not apply to aggressors,” Cruz said. “It is a defense that only, only, only applies to those who are the victims or potential victims of other violent aggressors.”
He also said some politicians are trying to exploit the Martin case “for agendas that have nothing to do with that young man who lost his life.”
The Senate panel also heard from Lucia McBath, mother of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, shot to death in Jacksonville, Florida, late last year.
“My son Jordan was shot and killed last November while sitting in the back seat of a friend’s car listening to loud music,” McBath said. “The man who killed him opened fire on four unarmed teenagers even as they tried to move out of harm’s way. That man was empowered by the stand-your-ground statute.”
“This law declares open season on anyone that we don’t trust for reasons that we don’t even understand, that don’t even have to be true,” McBath said.
Fulton’s 17-year-old son, Martin, was unarmed when he was shot dead in February 2012, in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch volunteer who had followed him and told police the teenager was acting suspiciously. Martin was walking home from a convenience store.
Zimmerman, who was legally carrying a firearm, told police that when he got out of his truck he was confronted and punched by Martin, and shot him in self-defense. Martin’s parents, and others, said Zimmerman racially profiled the black teen. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder on July 13 of this year.
Fulton said she wanted “to let you know how important it is that we amend this stand-your-ground because it certainly did not work in my case. The person that shot and killed my son is walking the streets today, and this law does not work.”
“We need to do something about this law when our kids cannot feel safe in their own communities,” Fulton said.
McBath’s son, Davis, was shot and killed in November 2012. Michael David Dunn is charged with first-degree murder in that case, according to the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.
Dunn, who is white, is accused of firing on a vehicle carrying four black teenagers during a dispute over their loud music, killing Davis, the newspaper said. Dunn said he saw a gun in their vehicle although no gun was found, the paper said. A trial is scheduled for next year.
In reaction to the Martin case, President Barack Obama said July 19 that “Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.” The nation needs to do some “soul searching” on race and violence, Obama told reporters in a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room.
The teenager’s father, Tracy Martin, told lawmakers in July that Congress should make it a crime to profile minors based on race and then kill in self-defense. He spoke to the first meeting of the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys.
Tracy Martin said he wanted to see legislation, named after his son, passed within 50 years. Such a proposal has little chance of winning passage by both chambers in the current Congress split between the Republican-controlled House and majority-Democratic Senate.
The Senate in April lacked the votes to advance a measure to expand background checks for most firearm purchases. The bill was proposed after the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December.
To contact the reporter on this story: Laurie Asseo in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org