Beyond the personal tragedy and ugly enduring stereotypes that might have been at play, the central political question of the Trayvon Martin killing surrounds Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which creates the circumstances allowing for the shooting of an unarmed teen to be handled by police as a justifiable homicide.
For the most part, reaction to the visceral aspects of Martin’s killing in Sanford, Fla., has been a united sense of outrage and desperation for answers. On Friday, President Obama and national Republicans alike called Martin’s death “a tragedy” and welcomed further investigation into the killing. But when it comes to the bubbling debate over Stand Your Ground itself, Republicans on the national stage are steering clear and trying to avoid any talk of reform.
Observers of the gun control debate say it’s impossible to have a discussion about the Martin case without talking about Stand Your Ground. That means a new national debate over laws like it may be coming — whether national Republicans like it or not.
For their part, the GOP seems to be preparing for such a fight, slowly crafting a roundabout defense of the laws by insisting that George Zimmerman, the Neighborhood Watch captain who pulled the trigger, did not act within the law’s purview. The problem, they say, is the shooter, not the law.
Rep. Allen West (R-FL) — who called the Martin case “an outrage” and said the Sanford police chief should be “relieved of his duties” (he stepped down temporarily Thursday) — told TPM Friday that any discussion of the Castle Doctrine is unnecessary. The Florida law “does not apply whatsoever” to the Martin case, West said, because Zimmerman was not being pursued by Martin. Anti-gun lobbyists shouldn’t use the legislation to score political points, West added.
That line of reasoning might be tied to a key GOP constituency. Stand Your Ground and other Castle Doctrine legislation tweaks self-defense laws to allow people who feel personally threatened (or find an intruder in their home) to kill the person threatening them in self defense. The legal doctrine is incredibly important to the NRA, which in turn is incredibly important to Republicans on the national stage.
And so prominent Republicans are being sure to hedge their concern over Martin’s death and their support for the investigation with a defense of Stand Your Ground. Stand Your Ground doesn’t apply in the Martin case, Republicans like West and others argue, so let’s hold all take a breath before we start attacking the law.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) — on the shortlist of GOP vice presidential candidates and one of the lawmakers who brought Stand Your Ground to Florida in the first place — said earlier this week that a conversation about the law is premature.
Rubio welcomed the federal investigation into the Martin case Tuesday but told the Tampa Bay Times: “Let’s let the Justice Department go in — these are professionals, they’ll know what they’re looking for — before people rush to judgment on whether a change in law is (necessary).”
Rubio said there’s “rationale” behind Stand Your Ground. “We have no idea whether that applies at all in this case,” he said. “I think that’s very important to understand.”
“They’re going to do everything they can to run away and hide from the reality of this. From the role that the guns played, the role that Florida’s gun laws played, to the role that the agenda that the gun lobby played,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, a prominent gun control advocacy group.
But it’s impossible to envision the Martin case controversy continuing without a discussion about Stand Your Ground, said University of California, Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, a prominent constitutional law expert who testified in the landmark District of Columba v. Heller gun-control case.
“Inevitably, this case touches on both issues of gun rights and issues of race,” he told TPM. “There can’t be a discussion of this case that will ignore those.”
Gross said he sees Republicans trying hard to veer the conversation away from gun control by focusing on the specifics of Zimmerman’s arrest.
“That’s what they always do, that’s what they’re going to do again, that’s what they’ve started to do,” he said.
Chemerinsky said the issues are too fresh to game out the political scenarios.
“It’s too soon to know,” he said. “I think it’s always too easy when anything happens, especially highly publicized tragedies, to try to say it’s going to have long-lasting implications. You can’t at this point in time speak intelligently about what the implications are going to be. It’s too new.”
For now, national Republicans fall into two camps when it comes to Stand Your Ground. They either say they don’t want to talk about it, or they ignore it completely:
Mitt Romney avoided the law altogether in his first comments on the case.
“What happened to Trayvon Martin is a tragedy,” he said in a statement. “There needs to be a thorough investigation that reassures the public that justice is carried out with impartiality and integrity.”
Romney may be particularly sensitive to avoid running afoul of the NRA. Though he portrays himself as a staunch gun rights advocate now, conservatives have remained skeptical of him on the issue thanks to his past as a gun control supporter while governor of Massachusetts.
Newt Gingrich used similar rhetoric in an appearance with CNN’s Piers Morgan Thursday. Gingrich expressed his condolences to the family and welcomed the new investigations. But on the critical issue of the Castle Doctrine, he wasn’t interested in talking.
“I think, Piers, you just took an enormous jump,” Gingrich said when asked if the Stand Your Ground law was “a bunch of nonsense” in the wake of the Martin shooting.
Gingrich laid out his case:
Clearly you should have a right to defend yourself in your own home, and clearly somebody should not be translating standing your own ground into pushing somebody else, and that’s what’s going to come down as the question here. The young man apparently was not following the person who’s being investigated, apparently the shooter was following the young man. Now that’s not a ‘Stand Your Own Ground.’ That’s a chase the other person into their ground.
“I think you’re going to find that the law, as interpreted normally, doesn’t apply to this case,” Gingrich said.
Republican lawmakers at the state level in Florida aren’t necessarily mirroring the party’s national nervousness about discussing the Castle Doctrine. One of the law’s authors wrote a Fox News op-ed dismissing any connection between Stand Your Ground and the Martin case, but he may not be speaking for his whole party. Gov. Rick Scott, a conservative Republican of the tea party mold, has stepped in, putting a new prosecutor on the case and creating a task force to evaluate the 2005 law in the wake of Martin’s death.
Scott ordered the task force “to investigate how to make sure a tragedy such as this does not occur in the future, while at the same time, protecting the fundamental rights of all of our citizens — especially the right to feel protected and safe in our state,” he said in a statement.
This post has been updated to correct Brady Campaign president Dan Gross’ first name.