House Dems eye policy responses to shooting death of Trayvon Martin

In the wake of the slaying of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, House Democrats are drafting legislation designed to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

The lawmakers want to adopt tougher rules for Neighborhood Watch programs, eliminate certain state gun laws, rein in racial profiling and require an examination of racial disparities nationwide.

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The Democrats behind the legislation — all members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) — say the steps might have prevented last month's fatal encounter between Martin, 17, an unarmed African-American walking home from a convenience store in Sanford, Fla., and George Zimmerman, 28, a Latino Neighborhood Watch volunteer carrying a 9mm handgun.

Zimmerman, who was not arrested, says he acted in self-defense after Martin attacked him. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law allows for deadly force in some cases of self-defense. 

The outcry from black leaders and civil-rights advocates has spurred a weeks-long public debate over racism, gun reform, law enforcement and vigilantism. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has launched an investigation into the episode, but some Democrats on Capitol Hill say Congress also has a responsibility to intervene.


On Friday, CBC leaders did just that, introducing a resolution urging the repeal of "Stand Your Ground" laws in Florida and any state with a similar statute.

The resolution — sponsored by CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Florida Democratic Reps. Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings and Frederica Wilson, all members of the CBC — refers to Martin's killing  as a "crime," condemns "the inconceivable fact that his killer remains free" and claims "racial bias led to the use of deadly force."

The non-binding resolution also "condemns unfounded reliance on Stand Your Ground laws to protect actions that extend far beyond historical use of self-defense … [and] urges any state legislature considering Stand Your Ground legislation to reject such proposals."

There's more legislation to come. 

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), another CBC member, is crafting a proposal requiring members of Neighborhood Watch groups to be registered before taking to the streets under a watchman's badge. 

And Wilson, who represents the district where Martin lived, is working on legislation to create a national commission "to study race-based injustices, health disparities and economic disparities affecting African-American men and boys," in the words of the congresswoman.

The commission would be charged with examining racial disparities on topics ranging from crime and incarcerations to education and healthcare, and making policy recommendations to Congress on how to fix any imbalances it finds.

"I am tired of burying young black boys," Wilson said Tuesday during a Capitol Hill forum on hate crimes and racial profiling. "I have buried too many, cried too many tears, attended too many funerals, and it is unnecessary." 

The CBC members are also pushing a bill, sponsored by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, designed to fight profiling within the nation's state and federal law-enforcement agencies.

Conyers said Tuesday that his bill would help ensure that individuals don't "use race, ethnicity, religion or national origin in any way, shape or form as enforcement criteria."

Zimmerman’s attorney, Craig Sonner, has rejected the notion that race played a role in the shooting, telling CBS’s “This Morning” that the confrontation "was not a racial issue."

"I don't believe there is any racial motivation on behalf of George Zimmerman," Sonner said.

Martin's parents disagree, maintaining their son was targeted because he was African-American. Benjamin Crump, the lawyer representing Martin's family, argued this week that tougher racial profiling laws might have prevented the tragedy.

"We honestly believe," Crump said, "that Trayvon Martin is dead today because he was racially profiled."

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