By Hannah Cornfield, a Fall 2013 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern
Though clapping, demonstration, or protest is prohibited during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, the audience and witnesses radiated quiet, heavy emotion last week during a hearing on “Stand Your Ground’ Laws: Civil Rights and Public Safety Implications of the Expanded Use of Deadly Force.”
Since Florida’s first expansion of “stand your ground” (SYG) laws in 2005, a person can legally use deadly force in response to a perceived threat. Today, twenty-six states have a SYG law in place that strongly emulates Florida’s.
Following Sen. Dick Durbin’s, D. Ill., opening remarks, two panels of witnesses addressed concerns with SYG laws, saying, 1) they have drastically increased the rate of homicides and firearm injuries; 2) they have allowed shooters to walk free in shocking situations; 3) they encourage those who carry guns to initiate confrontation where they end up killing unarmed people; and 4) they have increased racial disparities in the justice system.
Sybrina Fulton and Lucia McBath, the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis—two unarmed black teens who were killed in Florida by men claiming they needed to defend themselves—offered compelling testimonies. What I found most powerful was the conversation about what messages we—as a society, as social groups, as individuals—take away from the consequences of SYG laws, particularly in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Durbin referenced a statistic I found incredibly troubling, saying that “in [SYG] states nearly 17 percent of homicides involving white shooters and black victims were ruled justified, compared to only 1 percent of homicides with black shooters and white victims.” This disparity, embedded in systemic racial bias, will not go away if our justice system does not equally protect each person’s civil and human rights.
Durbin questioned the actual self-defense and public safety factors of SYG laws, and in reality they only provoke more discordance between and among races. We need to heal our broken justice system by rehabilitating and uniting our society, rather than sacrificing human life in order to protect only the majority group’s “civil liberties.”
Other panelists included Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D. Ohio, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D., Ill., Rep. Louie Gohmert, R. Tex., president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys David LaBahn, Harvard clinical professor of law and director of the Criminal Justice Institute Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center John R. Lott, Jr., and senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute Ilya Shapiro.