By Ben Goad - 10/29/13 12:14 PM EDT
Trayvon Martin’s mother testified Tuesday that "stand your ground" self-defense laws in roughly two dozen states breed violence and allow killers to walk free.
Sybrina Fulton’s assertion, made during a heated hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, rekindled congressional debate over the laws, which authorize people to use deadly force when threatened — even if they could retreat instead.
“The person that shot and killed my son is walking the streets today,” Fulton said of George Zimmerman, the volunteer watchman acquitted of murder charges after fatally shooting Martin, 17, in Florida last year. “This law does not work.”
“Many people have mistakenly assumed that because my son’s killer did not apply for ‘Stand Your Ground’ immunity during the trial, that this law was not a factor in his death,” Fulton said on prepared remarks. “The truth is that the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law in its entirety creates many opportunities for people to commit terrible acts of violence and evade justice.”
Martin’s death spawned calls from President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder for reconsideration of "stand your ground" laws, and whether they encourage violence.
Congressional Democrats, both on the committee and the witness panel, backed the plan, pointing to research showing homicides on the rise in states that have adopted the laws, and statistics showing shooters who kill black people are more likely to be found justified under the statutes than those who kill whites.
“Congress should guide this discussion, carefully monitor the application of these laws and watch out for racial disparity,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) testified.
But criminal laws, Republicans countered, are traditionally the province of the states. The federal government is largely powerless to force states to repeal the laws.
“Federal government doesn’t have jurisdiction, doesn’t have the constitutional authority to determine [what] the substantive criminal law should be in each of our 50 states,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), top Republican on the Judiciary subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.
Cruz accused the Obama administration of lax enforcement of federal gun laws that do exist, noting that the Justice Department has prosecuted only a small fraction of felons or other prohibited purchasers found to have attempted to illegally purchase a firearm.
Cruz defended states’ rights to adopt and enforce "stand your ground" laws, saying “self defense is a bedrock liberty of every American,” and accused the panel’s Democrats with playing politics with the issue.
“If it is not within Congress’s Jurisdiction to legislate substantive state criminal law, it raises whether there may be a broader political agenda behind the hearing instead,” he testified.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) the subcommittee’s chairman, took exception to the suggestion, saying the laws have important real-world implications that deserve the panel’s attention.
“It appears this law is an invitation for confrontation,” he said.