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Controversial 'Stand Your Ground' Laws Took Center Stage In 2012


Even before the horrific shooting in Newtown, this was a year in which guns were in the news. There was the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. And another story we've followed began in February with a 911 call in Sanford, Florida.


GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around looking about.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. And this guy, is he white, black or Hispanic?

ZIMMERMAN: He looks black.

WERTHEIMER: That's former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman talking about 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. A few minutes later, there was a struggle that ended with Zimmerman shooting and killing Martin. Zimmerman says the teenager was reaching for his gun and that he, Zimmerman, acted in self-defense. Under Florida's Stand Your Ground law, if a judge agrees, Zimmerman will be immune from prosecution. More than 20 other states now have Stand Your Ground laws patterned after Florida's. Joining me from Miami to talk about the law and questions being raised about it is NPR's Greg Allen. Greg, good morning.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, remind us exactly what the Stand Your Ground law say and why it's so controversial?

ALLEN: Well, you know, it's a law that says that people who are threatened with death or great bodily harm are entitled to use deadly force to defend themselves, and they have no duty to retreat. And the law goes further. It has a provision that says people who defend themselves are immune from prosecution. You'll recall the national outcry when police in Sanford investigated the Trayvon Martin shooting, but then delayed arresting and charging George Zimmerman. It was because they were concerned that by doing so, they might run afoul of the Stand Your Ground law.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the Trayvon Martin case has certainly cast a spotlight on this concept. Are there other cases where it's been an issue?

ALLEN: There is currently a case in Jacksonville that has some similarity to the Trayvon Martin shooting, in that it was another black 17-year-old - in this case Jordan Davis, who was killed. And there are many other cases in Florida where police and prosecutors are frustrated that defendants they'd like to put on trial are sometimes just able to walk away.

WERTHEIMER: So, with all the concerns that law enforcement, prosecutors, citizens have, is Florida going to reconsider this law, maybe make some changes?

ALLEN: Well, we'll have to see. Shortly after the Trayvon Martin shooting, Florida's governor, Rick Scott, convened a task force to do that; to look at the law and see if it needs to be changed. They heard from many impassioned advocates for repealing the law or changing, taking away the immunity provision. But proponents of the law also testified and they say this was written to protect law-abiding citizens who are defending themselves from having to lawyer up to defend against charges that shouldn't be brought in the first place. So, the task force members - we've gotten down to the final report - and it looks like they're going to say that if there's any problem with the law, it's not with the law itself but with how it's interpreted by law enforcement and the courts. They judge in the George Zimmerman case has scheduled a Stand Your Ground hearing in April where she'll decide whether he'll have to stand trial or whether he acted in self-defense and should get off.

WERTHEIMER: With the Newtown shooting now, Greg, there is a sense that public attitudes are shifting on gun control. Is that affecting Florida's debate over Stand Your Ground?

ALLEN: Well, not so far, Linda. This is a state with a strong NRA presence. The NRA helped craft the law and they're firmly behind it. There's a push to change the law that's being led by Democratic leaders in Tallahassee and also some civil rights leaders. And the parents of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, who's the teenager in Jacksonville who was recently shot and killed, they've launched a campaign to get the law repealed also. But clearly opponents to the Stand Your Ground law are fighting an uphill battle.

WERTHEIMER: Greg, thank you.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: That's NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.