Florida teen's killing sheds light on problematic gun laws.
After weeks of public outcry, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have launched an investigation into a case involving Florida's controversial self-defense law, which is similar to a bill that Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton wisely vetoed earlier this month.
The inquiry is welcomed, since nearly two dozen states around the country have adopted kindred laws allowing citizens wide latitude in using deadly force, presumably for self-defense. Unfortunately, it took the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to generate a national spotlight on the dangerous consequences of these laws.
Last month, Martin was walking to a friend's house from a Florida convenience store when he told a friend on the phone that he feared that he was being followed. He was right. George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer, suspected the teen was trouble and trailed him, even after a 911 emergency dispatcher told him to stop.
Soon after, Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, claiming he had the right under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law because the teen attacked him. Martin, a popular teen with no criminal record, was unarmed. Although Zimmerman told police he shot Martin in self-defense, public protesters are raising critical questions as to whether racial profiling may have fueled the shooting. Martin was black; Zimmerman is a white Hispanic.
Over the past 14 months, Zimmerman made 46 calls to 911 dispatchers. After the shooting, police said they had no evidence to refute his story, despite witness accounts to the contrary, and refused to arrest him. Because of the outcry, a grand jury has been convened to look into the matter.
"Stand Your Ground" laws have been pushed by the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association, and opposed by law enforcement. In 2005, when Florida's law was adopted, then-Republican Gov. Jeb Bush sided with the gun lobby, calling the measure "common sense."
But it wasn't common sense. In most cases, the laws allow citizens to use lethal force in response to a threat, without fear of facing criminal prosecution or a civil lawsuit. Law enforcement officials say the laws have made it tougher to prosecute violent criminals, who now almost always claim they acted in self-defense.
In addition, the laws give too much credence to the accounts of those claiming self-defense. As the Martin case so painfully illustrates, the standard too often seems to be "shoot first, and ask questions later."
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