President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have little if any power to compel states to dial back "stand your ground" laws the two have criticized in the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
“There's little the Department of Justice can do," UCLA law professor Adam Winkler told The Hill.
"States are allowed to have their own criminal laws, including self-defense laws,” Winker said. “DOJ may be able to pursue civil rights charges in individual cases, but it has no authority to overturn state laws.”
The stand your ground laws in two dozen states around the country have come under national scrutiny in the wake of last week’s acquittal of Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman, in Martin's shooting death.
Following the verdict, the Justice Department announced it would consider bringing a federal civil rights case against Zimmerman, and on Friday President Obama said that the laws need to be examined to see whether they “encourage” violence.
“If we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see?” Obama said during a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room.
Still, without backing from the states, Holder and the administration have fairly little recourse, Winkler said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who has a background in law, said that the push to rid the nation of stand your ground laws would be “very difficult” in Washington and must take place outside of the Beltway.
“I don’t think it can be done from here,” Cummings said. “It’s something that’s going to have to be done by the state legislatures.”
“We’re just in the data-gathering phase right now,” explained the commission’s staff director, Marlene Sallo.
“Once the data is gathered, then we’ll do an analysis and try to ascertain whether there was possible racial bias as the laws were administered – the stand your ground laws – at the states that we plan on looking at,” she said.
Though the independent commission does not have any enforcement powers on its own, it publishes reports that could be used to inform potential Justice Department cases.
The administration’s vehement indictment of the stand your ground laws could actually backfire in parts of the country where the president is less well liked, though.
“If anything, Holder's opposition to stand your ground may make it harder to obtain reforms in the Republican-led states where such laws are commonly found,” Winkler said.
Additionally, advocates support the idea of having federal officials speak with state and local law enforcement agencies to share training practices.
Obama highlighted the idea Friday as “one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear” to help federal and state officials communicate.
Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, said the Justice Department should issue new guidelines for members of community watch groups as well as an update to a decade-old guidance on racial profiling.
The racial profiling guide “clarifies how law enforcement departments should function. Even though it is primarily a federal law enforcement policy, it is one that is usually utilized as kind of a best practice for local law enforcement as well,” Shelton said.
Still, most of the few federal roads to combating the laws go through Congress.
The administration’s inability to rein in the stand your ground statutes is reminiscent of President Obama’s push to reform gun laws in the aftermath of December’s elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Obama announced a series of executive actions in response to the shooting spree. But his top priorities – universal background checks for firearms purchases, the confirmation of a director to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and bans on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines – require congressional action.
Several gun control bills offered up in response to Newtown have faltered.
Despite long odds, members of the Congressional Black Caucus are drawing up a series of bills in response to Zimmerman’s acquittal, including legislation offering financial incentives to states that repeal stand your ground laws.
The legislation faces a tough road forward in the Republican-controlled House.
“They are a menace to Americans in general," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said of the laws, "and especially to African American youths."