Stan Spruill keeps a loaded bedside gun to protect himself, he said while trying on a $70 “concealed-carry denim vest” at the National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis. Still, he’s not sure a Florida Neighborhood Watch volunteer was justified in killing Trayvon Martin.
George Zimmerman suspected Martin of being a burglar and on Feb. 26 shot the unarmed 17-year-old during a confrontation after trailing him through a Sanford subdivision. Police initially didn’t charge him, thanks to a so-called Stand Your Ground law backed by the NRA. The measure allows citizens to use force when they are threatened -- even when they can retreat.
“I’m going to stand my ground in my own home,” Spruill, 62, a furniture-company fleet manager from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, and a 25-year NRA member, said in an interview. “I’m not going to chase the guy down the street.”
While Spruill and others at the NRA’s 141st annual meeting said they want all the facts about that night, the law backed by the NRA in Florida and 24 other states faces new questions from lawmakers in at least three states about whether the expansion of the centuries-old doctrine allowing people to defend themselves when attacked in their homes goes too far.
In St. Louis, thousands of NRA faithful came to celebrate their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. They viewed pistols, rifles, gun sights and gear in 500,000 square feet of space at the America’s Center Convention Complex. They listened to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and comedian Larry the Cable Guy at the Edward Jones Dome.
Opponents, including three people who were in the Arizona parking lot where former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot last year, also came and took out a full-page ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch calling for repeal of what they call “shoot-first laws.”
Critics of Stand Your Ground measures are exploiting Martin’s death, said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. The association will “not back down an inch,” he said.
“There is nothing wrong with allowing honest people the ability to defend themselves, and there’s everything wrong with governments and politicians trying to restrict that right,” Cox said in an interview April 14. “You can count on the National Rifle Association to push back in every state and every city across the country.”
In Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina, lawmakers have proposed limiting self-defense laws or barring the use of deadly force against an aggressor who is running away, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
It’s the NRA’s job to explain why such laws are needed, said Matt Blunt, a board member and former Republican Missouri governor who signed a version of Stand your Ground in 2007. He said in an interview if the facts of the Martin shooting are as reported, he doesn’t think Florida’s law would apply.
“Stand Your Ground doesn’t say that, if you see somebody’s that’s suspicious, that you can follow them and try to figure out what’s going on,” Blunt said. “It doesn’t talk about that obviously at all.”
After Sanford police released Zimmerman, a state prosecutor charged him April 11 with second-degree murder. His lawyers have said he will plead not guilty. The Stand Your Ground law may make him hard to convict, Florida defense attorneys have said.
In 2005, the state expanded the centuries-old “castle doctrine.” The new measure says someone attacked outside the home has no duty to retreat and can “stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.”
Searching for Sense
That idea is now law in half the states, with some allowing deadly force in or outside the home, and others allowing action only in locations such as a home, vehicle or business, according to the NCSL.
Critics, including the group Licensedtokill.org, which says it has collected more than 200,000 virtual signatures on a petition, say the laws encourage “gun-toting vigilantism.”
“We’re not against Second Amendment rights,” said Patricia Maisch, 63, of Tucson, who was in the grocery-store parking lot where Giffords was shot January 2011 by an obsessed constituent. “We just think there could be some more sensible ways to write laws.”
She said in an interview that she came to St. Louis to rally against the Florida law with Bill Badger, who was wounded and tackled Giffords’s shooter, and Mavy Stoddard, who was shot and her husband killed that day.
“I full well know what it’s like to shoot first and then think about it,” Stoddard, 77, said in an interview. “My husband was shot, I felt his body give. I was holding him when he died.”
While the facts surrounding the Florida shooting remain murky, guns can save lives, said Steve Bodenweiser, 55, an NRA life member from Hamburg, Pennsylvania. He mentioned reports about a 65-year-old man who shot two teens, killing one, after they knocked him from his bicycle and tried to rob him in January, according to the Reading Eagle. The man was not charged, the newspaper said.
“A gentleman like that has a right to protect himself,” Bodenweiser, owner of an auto-repair shop, said in an interview.
The NRA has about 4 million members, and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told those at an April 14 board meeting that they will prevail against efforts to weaken gun laws because they “represent the very best of America's character and strength.”
“When we fight, we win,” he said. “And when it comes to defending freedom, no one fights harder, longer and stronger than we do.”
LaPierre said U.S. gun owners have increased to 100 million from 65 million 20 years ago. There has been a 30 percent increase in first-time buyers since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Paul Pluff, director of marketing services for gun maker Smith & Wesson Holding Co. of Springfield, Massachusetts, the second-leading seller behind Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc., of Southport, Connecticut.
Smith & Wesson was among more than 550 exhibitors. At its exhibit, men and women were inspecting hunting, military and law-enforcement weapons costing from $300 to $2,600.
‘Wall of Guns’
Patrons also could buy raffle tickets to win a selection from a “Wall of Guns,” and there was an NRA store selling books such as “Self-Defense Laws of all 50 States,” a $70 NRA Mantis Bulldog knife and clothing items including a $40 gun holster that attaches to the middle of a bra.
The NRA, which began as a grassroots organization dedicated to teaching marksmanship, brings in more than $200 million a year from dues, contributions and other sources. It spent $125.9 million last year on program services, including lobbying, according to its annual report.
The Florida shooting may make it harder to pass gun laws because it has “added to the fear,” said Ed Schieffer, a Democratic state representative in Missouri who has sponsored a bill to allow concealed weapons on buses.
“It’s stirred up more people emotionally, and this is definitely an emotional issue,” Schieffer said.
With assistance from William Selway in Washington and Michael C. Bender in Tallahassee. Editors: Stephen Merelman,