WASHINGTON – Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, testified before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Tuesday about “stand your ground” self-defense laws, reviving the contentious debate in Washington over such legislation.
Fulton said she was there so that lawmakers could put a face on the tragedy that resulted in the loss of her son, who had just celebrated his 17th birthday three weeks before he was killed while walking home in Sanford, Fla.
“He was going to get a drink and candy. He was not looking for any type of trouble,” she said. “He was not the criminal that some people have tried to make him out to be. He was not the criminal that the person that shot and killed him thought that he was.”
She told Congress stand your ground laws do not work because they can be confusing and applied inconsistently.
“I just wanted to come here to let you know how important it is that we amend this stand your ground because it certainly did not work in my case,” Fulton said. “The person that shot and killed my son is walking the streets today. This law does not work. We need to seriously take a look at this law.”
George Zimmerman, who was legally carrying a firearm, told police that he was confronted and punched by Martin, and shot him in self-defense, though he did not invoke the state’s stand your ground law in his defense. Martin’s parents and others argue that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder in July.
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. Florida was the first state to enact such laws in 2005. Subcommittee chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said 25 other states have introduced the law in some form since 2005.
The partisan divide on the issue was clear on Tuesday, with Democrats saying the laws have led to more gun violence, often targeting minorities, and Republicans arguing for the need of self-defense laws.
Republicans, led by the Texas duo of Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Louie Gohmert, said the matter should be left to the state legislatures that passed the laws.
Cruz said these laws are the responsibility of state governments. Gohmert, who testified at the hearing, said that most states “are doing quite well” with legislating in the area of criminal law without interference from the federal government.
“Let’s leave state criminal law to the consideration of state legislatures,” he said.
Gohmert noted that murder rates are higher in Chicago and Washington, D.C., where gun laws are more restrictive, than they are in states that have stand your ground laws.
“[The] idea of being able to stand one’s ground without first retreating has been combined as part of the law of self-defense in at least 22 states. It might also be noted that these 22 are not necessarily states in which runaway murder rates abound,” he said.
Harvard Law professor Ronald S. Sullivan said the law “tells Floridians that they can incorrectly profile young black children, kill them, and be protected by stand your ground laws.” He said these laws unfairly target minorities and encourage citizens to act as vigilantes.
John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, said the majority of people that invoke stand your ground laws in court have been of the same race as the victim.
He rebutted Sullivan’s claim by indicating that blacks benefit most from these laws.
“In Florida, blacks make up about 16 percent of the population, but they account for 31 percent of the state’s defendants invoking stand your ground laws,” he said.
He contended that black defendants who invoke the law as a defense are acquitted almost eight percentage points more often than whites.
“Stand your ground is tremendously misunderstood,” said Cato scholar Ilya Shapiro.
He said these laws protect law-abiding citizens, such as victims of domestic violence, and do not increase the likelihood of vigilantes.