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March 22, 2012

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with the law."

"We saw a parade of hypotheticals by those who opposed this ... What's important is the message it sends, and that's, 'Don't attack me.'" - NRA Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer, March 12, 2005

With the entire nation outraged about the February 26, 2012 murder of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida by concealed handgun permit holder George Zimmerman, 28, the gun lobby is finally breaking its silence on the tragedy. It has been well chronicled that the National Rifle Association's "Stand Your Ground" law in Florida has played a central role in the controversial decisions made by the Sanford Police Department in the case.

The "Stand Your Ground" law eliminates the longstanding common law duty to retreat from a conflict if one can do so safely. It also allows an individual to meet force with lethal force—thereby escalating a simple fistfight into a firefight. Finally, it grants immunity from both criminal prosecution and civil action to those deemed to have acted in "self-defense" under its liberal terms. Protected by these provisions, Zimmerman has yet to be arrested and still has both his handgun and his concealed handgun permit in hand. And it took nearly a month, a petition with more than a half-million signatures, national media attention, and Department of Justice intervention for the State Attorney's office to convene a grand jury in Seminole County to investigate the case.

Those responsible for the law, however, fail to see a problem.

The NRA's Marion Hammer, who was the primary lobbyist for the "Stand Your Ground" bill in Florida, told the Palm Beach Post that calls for the arrest of George Zimmerman are premature, stating, "For law enforcement to rush to judgment just because they are being stampeded by emotionalism would be a violation of law. This law is not about one incident. It's about protecting the right of law-abiding people to protect themselves when they are attacked. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the law." Responding to comments by Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott, who said, "If there's something wrong with the law that's in place, I think it's important we address it," Hammer added, "If the governor wants to waste time looking at it he can knock himself out."

She was right about one thing. It's not about one incident. The Stand Your Ground defense has been used in at least 93 cases in the past five years in Florida (these are just the confrontations that made the newspapers). In 57 of them, those who used force were either not charged with a crime or the charges were dropped by prosecutors or dismissed by a judge before trial. Seven other defendants were acquitted.

All in all, Hammer's comments were not surprising given that she justified the law years earlier by stating, "Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you're attacked, you're supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property."

Concerned citizens with different opinions about the "Stand Your Ground" law can contact Marion Hammer at her office at (850) 222-9518.

The legislator who sponsored the "Stand Your Ground" bill for the NRA in the state legislature has also weighed in on the Trayvon Martin tragedy. While admitting that his law "has been used by [George Zimmerman] to pardon his actions," Republican Florida Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) vigorously defended the law in a March 21st editorial for FoxNews.com, arguing that it "does not seem to be applicable to the tragedy that happened in Sanford." In doing so, he stated that "there is no duty to retreat when an individual is attacked on their property," but failed to acknowledge that this duty is removed in public as well.

Explaining why he sponsored the law in the first place, Baxley said the "catalytic event" was an incident in which a Panhandle man shot and killed a man breaking into his RV. But not only was this man not convicted of any crime, prosecutors didn't even bring charges against him.

Outside of his editorial piece, Baxley's tone has been decidedly different. He told the Palm Beach Post, "Invariably when there's any adverse incident, it's open season for anti-gun factions to disseminate this idea that there's something wrong with 'Stand Your Ground.' There's nothing in 'Stand Your Ground' that authorizes anyone to pursue and confront an individual. That's the problem in this case. Let them do a bill about that." To Baxley, the law continues to be "good public policy."

Rep. Baxley can be contacted at (352) 732-1313 or (850) 488-0335. His Twitter account is @dennisbaxley.

Meanwhile, the NRA continues to push and promote "Stand Your Ground" laws across the country. As Media Matters recently chronicled, since Trayvon Martin's death the NRA has continued to actively lobby for "Stand Your Ground" laws in Iowa, Alaska, and Minnesota, among other states.

In truth, the NRA has long experience with unnecessary "self-defense" shootings, including ones in which minority youth are the victims. The man who seized control of the NRA during the 1977 "Cincinnati Revolution," Harlon Carter, and turned it into a no-compromise, far right wing organization focused on rolling back existing gun laws, was involved in such an incident.

On March 3, 1931, Carter, who was 17, shot and killed 15-year-old Ramón Casiano. After returning home from school that day, Carter was told by his mother that there were three Hispanic youths loitering near their family’s property. Carter left his house, shotgun in tow, to confront the alleged loiterers. After finding Casiano and his two companions, Carter pointed his shotgun at them and ordered them to come with him. Casiano refused and pulled out a knife and asked Carter if he would like to fight. Carter then pointed the shotgun at Casiano’s chest. Casiano pushed the gun aside and asked Carter not to shoot while taking a step back. He was then shot and killed. Carter claimed self-defense, but the presiding judge instructed the jury, “There is no evidence that defendant had any lawful authority to require deceased to go to his house for questioning, and if defendant was trying to make deceased go there for that purpose at the time of the killing, he was acting without authority of law, and the law of self-defense does not apply.” Carter was convicted of murder without malice aforethought (a crime similar to second-degree murder) and sentenced to three years in prison. Subsequently, Carter successfully appealed his conviction with the appeals court, holding that the trial court failed “to submit to the jury appropriate instructions upon the law of self-defense.” When the shooting incident was reported in media in 1981, Carter initially denied that he had killed Casiano before falsely claiming that the shooting took place on his property.

Sadly, all these years later, the NRA has made sure the Harlon Carters of America are still getting away with it far too often.

March 14, 2012

“These a**holes... They always get away.”

On February 26th, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was an invited guest staying with his stepmother in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. During halftime of the NBA all-star game that evening, Martin walked to a local convenience store to get some snacks. Little did he know he was being followed by George Zimmerman, 28, the self-appointed “captain” of the neighborhood watch program. Zimmerman, who is white, had been tailing the young African-American in his car because he felt Martin was “a suspicious person.” At some point, Zimmerman called 911. He told a dispatcher, "This guy looks like he is up to no good. He is on drugs or something," and said that he was going to detain Martin because “These a**holes... They always get away.” The dispatcher told Zimmerman that a unit was being dispatched to the scene and asked Zimmerman to refrain from approaching Martin.

Zimmerman ignored this direction. He got out of his car and pursued Martin between two rows of townhouses. A fistfight broke out. When police arrived on the scene minutes later, they found Martin dying face down in the grass. In his hands were a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. He had been shot in the chest by Zimmerman, a concealed handgun permit holder who was armed that night, with a 9mm pistol.

If Zimmerman saw anything “suspicious” that night beyond an African-American walking through a gated community in a hooded sweatshirt, he never said. He was detained by the police, but after he claimed he acted in self-defense in killing the unarmed Martin (who he outweighed by 20 pounds), Zimmerman was released without charge. Martin’s family and their attorney were told by Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee that Zimmerman avoided arrest because he had a “squeaky clean” criminal record.

That statement was fraudulent. It has since been revealed that Zimmerman was arrested in 2005 for resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer. The case was dismissed after Zimmerman attended a pre-trial diversion program and a deal was made with his attorney to get the case dropped. In addition, police have fielded complaints from members of Zimmerman’s gated community about his aggressive conduct in the neighborhood. According to Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump, “[The Sanford Police Department] just lied to the family. They just couldn’t see why [Zimmerman] would do anything wrong or be violent. But not only do you know the guy killed this kid, because he admitted to it, you knew that he has a propensity for violence because of his past record.”

Martin, on the other hand, was squeaky clean. An avid sports fan and horseback rider, he dreamed of attending college and becoming an aviation mechanic. His family still recalls the boy’s heroics at age nine, when he dragged his father from a burning kitchen. After the shooting, his father described his son as “a dear friend.”

The reluctance of the Sanford Police Department to arrest Zimmerman probably has something to do with Florida’s outrageous “Stand Your Ground” law. The law removes the duty of individuals to retreat from a confrontation and allows them to use deadly force if they reasonably believe that it is necessary to prevent death or “great bodily harm.” “Stand Your Ground” legislation was enacted in 2005 after being championed in the Florida state legislature by National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer. In support of the law, Hammer said, “Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you're attacked, you're supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property.” But critics in Florida’s legal community dubbed it the “Shoot First” law and said that it “encourages people to stand their ground ... when they could just as easily walk away.” It has also been pointed out that the law “give[s] citizens more rights to use deadly force than we give police officers, and with less review.” A report by the South Florida Sun Sentinel vindicated these complaints, concluding, “several...accused murderers have successfully used [Florida’s] 2005 ‘Stand Your Ground’ law to prove they were the real victims.”

Three things are obvious to everyone: 1) Trayvon Martin was not a criminal; 2) George Zimmerman was not protecting either his property or family on the evening of February 26th, and; 3) Not only could Zimmerman have walked away that night; he actively sought out this conflict when told not to do so by law enforcement. No civilian gun-toter has a right to stand above the rule of law and serve as another human being’s judge, jury and executioner.

As of today, George Zimmerman remains a free man, with carte blanche to carry a loaded gun in public. Meanwhile, Trayvon’s family continues to mourn. "That was my baby, my youngest son," his mother Sybrina Fulton told ABC News. "He meant a lot to me, I don't think the police department really understands that ... I need justice for my family, I just want justice for my son."

If you’d like to help the Martin family, please do so by signing this online petition that calls on Florida’s 18th District State's Attorney to prosecute George Zimmerman for this murder.

[Audio clips of 911 calls made on the night of the murder can be heard here.]