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NRA isn't budging in post-verdict 'stand your ground' standoff

Crime, Law and JusticeLaws and LegislationJustice SystemGeorge ZimmermanPoliticsNational Rifle Association of AmericaEric Holder

The lines appear to have been drawn in the coming "stand your ground" standoff.

The National Rifle Assn. made clear Wednesday that it would not budge, one day after U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. made an impassioned speech at the NAACP convention in Orlando, Fla.,  in which he exhorted the nation to take a hard look at states' various "stand your ground" laws.

Such laws have come under scrutiny since Saturday's acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, even though Zimmerman's attorneys in April waived a "stand your ground" immunity hearing.

“The attorney general fails to understand that self-defense is not a concept, it’s a fundamental human right,” Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement to the media. “To send a message that legitimate self-defense is to blame is unconscionable, and demonstrates once again that this administration will exploit tragedies to push their political agenda.”

And so with the NRA marking its post-Zimmerman stance -- which is expected to be echoed by the group's influential surrogates nationwide in the coming days and weeks -- the debate is taking shape, with civil rights groups and public figures across the country marshaling their strength and calling for a repeal.

Florida's "stand your ground" law -- and its counterparts in other states -- received a burst of national attention after Martin's death in 2012; the law permits someone to "stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force," if the person fears death or great bodily harm. The law also removes the duty to retreat in the face of a perceived threat.

In Florida, a "stand your ground" immunity hearing allows a judge to wave off a criminal prosecution. In Zimmerman's case, his attorneys waived the hearing and chose to defend him against the charge of second-degree murder and did not rely on "stand your ground."

The issue of "stand your ground" was in the jury instructions under the self-defense rubric in which justifiable use of force was to be considered.

"If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity," the instruction to the six-woman jury reads, "and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another. ..."

The jurors acquitted Zimmerman of murder or manslaughter “because of the heat of the moment and the 'stand your ground' " law, Juror B-37 told CNN's Anderson Cooper in an anonymous interview after the trial. (Four of the other jurors later released a statement saying Juror B-37 didn't speak for them.)

Gun-rights advocates, including the NRA in a May 2012 statement after Martin's shooting became a household subject, have praised the expanded "stand your ground" standard as a clearer, more favorable benchmark for self-defense.

"The vast majority of states do not impose a 'duty to retreat' and most Americans support laws that clarify that common law, common-sense right," the NRA's statement said then. "It empowers lawful people to defend themselves, and deters would-be murderers, rapists and robbers."

The Republican governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, continued to defend her state's version of the "stand your ground" laws Tuesday by calling them "a constitutional right."

But as part of the Zimmerman verdict backlash that has erupted since Saturday, Holder -- the nation's top law-enforcement official -- joined civil-rights groups in criticizing the broad standard of the stand-your-ground law in his Tuesday speech.

“It’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods,” Holder said. “These laws try to fix something that was never broken.”

Central to changing the law is the question of retreat, which is not obligated under "stand your ground" laws, as opposed to some self-defense laws that treat safe retreat as a duty: If you can get away safely, you can't legally kill somebody.

“We must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely.” Otherwise, Holder said, “by allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety. The list of resulting tragedies is long and, unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent.”

Also Tuesday, Florida state Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando), said she had enlisted three fellow Democratic legislators to repeal the state's "stand your ground" law.

"For the most part Florida officials have been silent, but the verdict that came down in Florida vs. Zimmerman rests squarely on the shoulders of the Florida Legislature," Thompson said. "Florida has to fix this problem because Florida created this problem."

But Florida Gov. Rick Scott's office -- which was occupied for the second day Wednesday by a couple of dozen demonstrators calling for an end to the law -- said late Tuesday that a task force commissioned after Martin's shooting in February 2012 had already weighed in.

"The task force recommended that the law should not be overturned, and Gov. Scott agrees," his office said in a statement.

The governor himself had been a little more blunt Monday, speaking to Fox News in reaction to the Zimmerman verdict.

"We shouldn't turn this into politics," Scott said. "This was a tragedy."

To which demonstrators hoping to change the law have since replied: Yes, exactly.

Jerriann Sullivan and Arelis Hernandez of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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