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Obama Uses a Teaching Moment to Challenge "Stand Your Ground" Laws

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Source: The Nation

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President Obama's decision to  speak frankly, and extensively,  about a Florida jury's acquittal of George Zimmerman, and about  the array of issues  that have arisen since Zimmerman shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was broadly significant. Only rarely does an American president step so directly and so intentionally into so charged a debate, and even more rarely does a president do so in such personal terms.

"You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son," the president explained Friday. "Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."

That was the headline statement.

But the president did not make his unexpected appearance Friday to talk about himself. He was talking issues, specific issues, and explaining why they matter.

It was a teaching moment. And Obama used it well:

"(When) you think about why, in the African American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away.

"There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

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Obama got specific, especially with regard to the "stand your ground" laws that have come into focus since Trayvon Martin's killing. And his remarks, coming at a critical point in the development of the debate about those laws, and of the national movement to overturn them laws, will sustain and encourage those who argue, as the Seattle Times has, that "the single best memorial to Trayvon Martin -- Justice for Trayvon -- is repeal of Florida's Stand Your Ground law."

Developed in Florida by a National Rifle Association lobbyist and her allies in 2005, that state's "stand your ground" law became the basis for laws that the NRA and the American Legislative Exchange Council succeeded over the next seven years in getting enacted in more than two dozen states. The outcry over the Trayvon Martin killing led large corporations, which had backed ALEC, to quit the group, and ALEC eventually announced that it was "refocusing" away from advocacy for "stand your ground" legislation. But the laws the group created remain on the books, and they continue to influence criminal justice in Florida and nationally -- as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin highlighted in announcing Friday that his Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee will hold hearings on how "stand your ground" laws were passed, and their impact on society.

Florida's "stand your ground" law -- which permits an individual who feels threatened to employ deadly force even when it would have been possible to retreat -- influenced the Zimmerman case from start to finish. After an initial failure by local authorities to charge the man who shot an unarmed Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman was finally charged and then tried. Though Zimmerman's lawyers mounted a classic self-defense argument at trail, the jury instructions said "he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so." And a key juror told CNN that she reached her "not guilty" stance at least in part "because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground."

Now, in Florida and other states, newspapers are calling for the repeal of of "stand your ground" laws. Activists are demanding that they be struck from the books. And lawmakers, even some who backed the laws initially, are rethinking "stand your ground."

It is in this context that the president entered the "stand your ground" debate. In addition to discussing the value of law that bar racial profiling, Obama said:

"Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it -- if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.

"I know that there's been commentary about the fact that the "stand your ground" laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case. On the other hand, if we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see?

"And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these "stand your ground" laws, I'd just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws."

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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