In his first remarks since a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and spurred renewed conversation over Stand Your Ground laws, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder expressed grave concern over the ALEC and NRA-backed laws that authorize the use of deadly force with no duty to retreat. These Stand Your Ground provisions perpetuate rather than prevent violence and undermine public safety, Holder told an audience at the NAACP national conference Tuesday:
Today — starting here and now — it’s time to commit ourselves to a respectful, responsible dialogue about issues of justice and equality — so we can meet division and confusion with understanding, with compassion, and ultimately with truth.
It’s time to strengthen our collective resolve to combat gun violence but also time to combat violence involving or directed toward our children — so we can prevent future tragedies. And we must confront the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs, and unfortunate stereotypes that serve too often as the basis for police action and private judgments.
Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation’s attention, it’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if — and the “if” is important — no safe retreat is available. But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely. By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety. The list of resulting tragedies is long and — unfortunately — has victimized too many who are innocent. It is our collective obligation — we must stand our ground — to ensure that our laws reduce violence, and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent.
Since the proliferation of these ALEC and NRA-backed Stand Your Ground laws in at least 21 states, studies and anecdotes have shown that these laws are discriminatory, applied arbitrarily, and associated with a higher rate of homicides. As Holder explains, shooters are arguably empowered by the concept that they can act as vigilantes. In most states, these statutes authorize the use of deadly forced and the right to “stand your ground” in fear of death, bodily harm, and even a forcible felony. Some states’ laws go even farther than that. Texas law, for example, authorizes the use of deadly force in defense of one’s personal property.
In the wake of the verdict, the Department of Justice said it would resume its investigation into the death of Trayvon Martin, which was suspended while state charges were pending. Civil rights leaders have called for both civil and criminal federal civil rights action. But while jury instructions and statements from an anonymous juror show that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law ultimately did play a role in the Zimmerman case, that DOJ investigation will focus on the case as a whole. Action on state Stand Your Ground laws would entail a separate initiative. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission announced in June it would undertake an in-depth probe into racial bias in Stand Your Ground laws.
In his remarks Monday, Holder also lamented the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision invalidating a key prong of the Voting Rights Act. “Let me be clear: this was a deeply disappointing and flawed decision,” he said. “It dealt a serious setback to the cause of voting rights. And, like all of you, I strongly disagree with the Court’s action.” The act’s invalidation meant that crucial suppressive voting policies blocked by Justice Department preclearance are now already going into effect.