'Stand Your Ground' Hearing Meant to Spark Debate, Not Federal Legislation

A Senate hearing Tuesday on state “stand your ground” laws is likely to feature emotional testimony from the mother of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, but is not intended to lay the groundwork for federal legislation addressing such statutes, according to a Democratic aide.

Instead, the hearing is meant to spark a “national debate on the impact of these laws,” said an aide to Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin said. The Illinois Democrat is chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, which will evaluate the controversial self-defense laws that are now on the books in at least 22 states.

“Our hearing will examine how these laws came to be; the way in which the laws have changed the legal definition of self defense; the extent to which the laws have encouraged unnecessary shooting confrontations; and the civil rights implications when racial profiling and ‘stand your ground’ laws mix, along with other issues,” the aide, who declined to be identified, said in an email to CQ Roll Call.

The hearing was originally scheduled for Sept. 17, but was delayed in the aftermath of the fatal shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.

Durbin first announced the hearing in July, following the widely publicized trial of George Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., who shot and killed Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, following a confrontation in February 2012. A jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges after determining he had acted in self defense, even though he initially pursued Martin. The verdict set off a national debate about racial profiling and laws, such as Florida’s, that provide added legal protections for people to use deadly force if they feel threatened.

President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and other Democrats have criticized the state laws as a dangerous expansion of self-defense legal protections.

Two House Democrats, Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois and Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio, are scheduled to testify Tuesday in opposition to the “stand your ground” laws, while a House Republican, Rep. Louis Gohmert of Texas, is expected to speak in defense of them. A second panel of witnesses includes Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, and the mother of another unarmed teenager who was shot to death in similar circumstances, as well as legal experts.

In making their case during the hearing, Democrats may point to a September report from the advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which found that states with “stand your ground” laws “have, on average, experienced a 53 percent increase in homicides deemed justifiable in the years following passage of the law, compared with a 5 percent decrease in states without ‘stand your ground’ statutes during the same period.” The effects of the laws are “disproportionately borne by the black community,” the report said.

Pre-Hearing Controversy

During the summer, some conservatives accused Durbin of using his Senate subcommittee chairmanship to intimidate those who might disagree with his assessment of the efficacy of “stand your ground” laws.

In the lead-up to the initially scheduled hearing, Durbin sent a letter to more than 300 companies and other organizations affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group of state legislators that has drafted model “stand your ground” legislation based on the Florida law. In his letter, Durbin asked the companies to clarify whether their support for ALEC also included support for such measures.

But Durbin’s letter drew sharp criticism from conservatives, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who in August called it “an inappropriate governmental intrusion into the personal and political views of American citizens and businesses.”

Darcy Olsen, president of the conservative Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, said in an interview that Durbin “is using an awful human tragedy to forward his own political agenda.”

Olsen added that Durbin and other Democrats have little recourse but to hold hearings on “stand your ground” laws, since Congress may not have the constitutional authority to override those laws without a compelling national interest.

“I’m not surprised that there’s not an effort to mount legislation because it would be completely unconstitutional,” she said.