By Julissa Catalan
Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, has joined forces with one of the few women who know her pain, Jordan Davis’ mother, Lucia McBath, to fight Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law, which helps protect killers from being convicted of murder.
The Stand Your Ground law states that a person who is not practicing illegal activities, and who is in fear of his or her safety, may use deadly force against an aggressor in order to avoid death or bodily harm.
Thirty-two states already have some version of the Stand Your Ground law on the books (though details of the law do vary from state to state)—most of which are based on the so-called castle doctrine, which prevents a threatened person from having to retreat. Virginia and Washington are also considering similar laws.
Of these 34 states, 31 have explicit “shall-issue” laws—meaning a license is required to carry a concealed handgun, but the licenses are issued based solely on a preset list of criteria, giving the authorizing jurisdiction absolutely no discretionary powers to deny permits. Rhode Island has shall-issue laws at the local level, leaving only California and Massachusetts with “may-issue” laws that allow jurisdictions some discretion in how they approve permits.
USA Today notes that Stand Your Ground is at the center of the upcoming retrial of Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced in 2012 to 20 years in prison for firing what she says was a warning shot on Aug. 1, 2010, to scare off her estranged husband—against whom she had a restraining order—during a dispute. Her husband, Rico Gray, was not injured, but the judge threw out Alexander’s Stand Your Ground self-defense claim. She is out of jail but is confined electronically to her home.
Though neither George Zimmerman nor Michael Dunn, who killed Davis when he fired indiscriminately into a car full of teenagers because he was upset with their “thug music,” actually invoked the Stand Your Ground law; the broad wording of the law allowed for public debate over whether either could use the defense to justify his shooting of an unarmed teen.
Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted of second-degree murder in Martin’s death, while the jury could not decide on a verdict on Dunn’s first-degree murder charge. He was convicted of three counts of attempted second-degree murder, one for each of the other teens in the car.
While it does not seem likely for Florida to repeal the law, senators are in the process of expanding and clarifying the law—adding a warning shot as part of the law’s protocol.
According to Time, the amendment is meant to clarify the rules on who can be protected by the law. It will also require law enforcement to create standard rules for neighborhood watch and include proper training to avoid confrontations. The new amendment will not protect the aggressor; however, “not having the duty to retreat” will remain in place.
“We’re trying to make a very good law even better,” said Republican Florida State Senator David Simmons, who wrote the Stand Your Ground law.
Advocates of this reform believe people like Alexander could have been protected, while 17-year-old victims like Martin and Davis could have been spared all together.
“If George Zimmerman would have followed the law and obeyed the amendments that we’re putting forward, yes, it would’ve saved [Trayvon’s] life because Zimmerman wouldn’t have gotten out of the car,” said Democratic Florida State Senator Chris Smith. “Trayvon Martin would have gone home and enjoyed his Skittles and iced tea, and the world would’ve been a better place.”
But Fulton and McBath are skeptical of these additions to the Stand Your Ground law. They believe it will give criminals “immunity for their behavior,” and the excuse “to shoot first and ask questions later,” as Fulton put it.
McBath does not believe that adding a warning shot is the answer. “More lives are at risk,” she said. “More people will shoot their guns and claim, ‘Well, I was just, you know, it was just a warning shot.'”
The Reverend Al Sharpton, who joined the teens’ mothers and hundreds of marchers on the walk from the Leon County Civic Center in Tallahassee, Fla., is also a skeptic of the law and its reform.
“It’s a flawed law because you don’t need an actual threat,” he said. “All you’ve got to do is believe a threat and you can use deadly force.”