Racial divisions exposed by the trial of George Zimmerman for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida plays into the interests of the corporate sponsors of the Stand Your Ground laws. Paranoia over gun rights and the threat of hoodie-clad black youths running wild have helped the corporate fearmongers carve off a generation of former Democrats, particularly in the South, and lure them to a new home in the Republican Party, regardless of the corporations’ sociopathic positions on their economic well-being.
Texas may have been the proving ground for the potency of gun rights when George W. Bush and Karl Rove seized Gov. Ann Richard’s opposition to a bill allowing concealed weapons licenses on demand and turned it into a wedge issue in 1994. With the assault weapons ban enacted by the Democratic Congress that year, Republicans, with help from the National Rifle Association, depicted the Democrats as gun grabbers, which proved a potent slur in rural Texas. The GOP toppled Richards and longtime Congressman Jack Brooks of Beaumont, Texas, a 42-year veteran who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, as well as House Speaker Tom Foley in Washington and 52 other House Democrats and nine Democratic senators to win control of both houses of Congress. Republicans also closed the gap with Democrats in the Texas Legislature.
In 1995, the Texas Legislature, with Democrats still in a narrow majority in both chambers, passed the concealed handgun license bill and changed the state’s “castle doctrine” law to allow deadly force against a person who unlawfully entered a house, “regardless of whether a reasonable person would have retreated.” It also provided an “affirmative defense” to civil suit, making it more difficult to sue the defender for damages in cases where the intruder actually posed no threat.
The Democrats’ retreat on gun bills didn’t stop the Republican tide, as the GOP finally gained control of the state Senate in 1996, though Democrats held the House until 2002. But Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 1994 and a savage gerrymandering once Republicans got control in 2003 under the direction of US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay banished many of the remaining white Democratic incumbents into unelectable districts. Since then, it’s all Texas Democrats can do to muster more than one-third of the members of each legislative chamber to stop a constitutional amendment or break a quorum.
The gun rights movement escalated in 2005 with the “Stand Your Ground” bill in Florida. The NRA promoted the right to use deadly force outside the home without any requirement to retreat from a dangerous situation, arguing that it was needed to provide immunity to gunmen who confronted threatening individuals.
The Stand Your Ground legislation was sponsored by Florida state Rep. Dennis Baxley and state Sen. Durell Peadon, both Republican allies of Gov. Jeb Bush. It was enacted with bipartisan support by the Republican-controlled Legislature and quickly signed by Bush, who called it a “commonsense” approach to making the citizenry safer. But it’s not as if nobody predicted that the law could have unintended consequences. Miami police chief John F. Timoney called the law unnecessary and dangerous. “Whether it’s trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn’t want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you’re encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn’t be used,” Timoney told the New York Times at the time. There also were explicit and repeated warnings that people of color and young people would be unreasonably and disproportionately harmed by the law.
Florida state Sen. Steve Geller (D) warned that the Stand Your Ground law ran the risk of encouraging Floridians to think that “you ought to be able to kill people that are walking toward you on the street because of this subjective belief that you’re worried that they may get in a fight with you.”
As soon as the bill was signed into law in Florida, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said the pro-gun organization would use the victory to promote the law everywhere.
Within weeks, a proposed statute with almost the exact working of the Florida law was adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). That’s a conservative network funded by the Koch Brothers and major corporations such as Altria (formerly Philip Morris), AT&T, Bayer, ExxxonMobil, GlaxoSmithKline, Peabody Energy, Pfizer, PhRMA (the drug lobby), Reynolds American, State Farm Insurance and UPS, among others, that brings together right-wing legislators with corporate interests and pressure groups to craft so-called “model legislation”
For the most part, John Nichols noted at The Nation, ALEC’s model legislation is designed to ease taxes and regulations for corporations, while weakening unions and undermining tort laws. But the council also dabbles in electoral and public safety issues.
Only a few months after Bush signed the Florida law, NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer worked with NRA operatives and friendly legislators on ALEC’s “Criminal Justice Task Force” to develop a new piece of Stand Your Ground model legislation for passage in states across the country. (For more on ALEC see alecexposed.org.)
According to Mother Jones, 25 states have passed Stand Your Ground laws, which critics also call “shoot first” laws. In Florida, we all now know that a defendant doesn’t have to prove he acted in self-defense — the prosecution has to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the killer didn’t fear for his life, which is a very high bar to clear — particularly when the only other witness is dead.
In Florida, the number of so-called “justifiable homicides” tripled in the five years after Jeb Bush signed the Stand Your Ground Law, the Tampa Bay Times reported Oct. 10, 2010. For the first half of the decade, the state counted an average of 34 justifiable homicides a year. In 2007, it logged 102. In 2008, 93. In 2009, 105. And the first six months of 2010, 44.
Backers of Stand Your Ground laws claim they result in lower crime rates, but a Texas A&M University study in June 2012 found that Stand Your Ground laws have the opposite effect.
“In contrast, we find significant evidence that the laws increase homicides,” wrote Mark Hoekstra, associate professor of economics, and Cheng Cheng, a doctoral student. They found evidence that castle doctrine laws increase “justifiable homicides” by private citizens by 17 to 50 percent, which translates into as many as 50 additional justifiable homicides per year nationally due to castle doctrine. “More significantly, we find the laws increase murder and manslaughter by a statistically significant 7 to 9 percent, which translates into an additional 500 to 700 homicides per year nationally across the states that adopted castle doctrine.
“Thus, by lowering the expected costs associated with using lethal force, castle doctrine laws induce more of it. This increase in homicides could be due either to the increased use of lethal force in self-defense situations, or to the escalation of violence in otherwise non-lethal conflicts. We suspect that self-defense situations are unlikely to explain all of the increase, as we also find that murder alone is increased by a statistically significant 6 to 11 percent.”
Of course, corporations aren’t really interested in increasing the number of homicides or fomenting a race war. What they want are legislatures they can bend to their will, and Stand Your Ground laws are one of many means to that end. As long as pandering gun laws not only sell more guns but also help elect Republican legislators and governors who appoint regulators who keep their hands off businesses, ALEC and the NRA will keep promoting them.
The best revenge for Trayvon Martin’s death would be to make sure every 18-year-old black and Latino youth is registered to vote and has a photo ID to make it past the GOP vote-suppression teams next year. (Make sure your white friends are registered, too, but clue them in about who their real enemies are. And it’s not 17-year-old kids with tea and Skittles.)