Standing their ground

In spite of the Trayvon Martin case, Massachusetts lawmakers are pushing for a controversial law that could promote violence as much as it prevents it
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  April 2, 2012

It seems like every decent person in America is scorching over the Trayvon Martin killing. As the complex case continues to unfold, it only makes less sense how neighborhood-watch captain George Zimmerman could allegedly gun down the unarmed 17-year-old on February 26 and walk away with his weapon.

At least in Massachusetts, people may find comfort in the fact that gun laws are much tighter here than in Florida. There's also the Sunshine State statute — often referred to as the "stand your ground" law— that's kept Zimmerman out of jail up to this point. Unlike Massachusetts, Florida permits a person "who is attacked in any place where he or she has a right to be . . . to stand his or her ground and meet force with deadly force."

But even as people coast to coast protest the Florida law, Massachusetts is considering a "stand your ground" measure of its own. Senate Bill 661, called an "Act Relative to the Common Defense," currently has much more support than an identical bill gained in two prior legislative sessions. The proposed act is less permissive than the Florida statute, which has coincided with the state's yearly count of "justifiable homicides" increasing threefold since its passage. Still, the Massachusetts bill — inspired by a campaign that the National Rifle Association (NRA) has so far successfully pushed in 24 states — raises troubling possibilities.

"On its face, this seems like a bad idea," says State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz of Jamaica Plain. "We're working so hard in the neighborhoods that I represent to prevent violence, and this only promotes more of it."

Chang-Díaz is not the only urban legislator who opposes the bill. Not a single state senator or representative from Suffolk County co-sponsored S661, while a spokesperson for Deval Patrick tells the Phoenix that the governor "does not support the bill."

Massachusetts General Law already gives citizens the right to defend themselves in their own homes. If passed, S661 would go much further. Like Florida's law, it would extend that right outside the home, into any public space, letting citizens use lethal force against anybody they think might "inflict great bodily injury or death" upon them or someone else. And as in Florida, the measure would also protect the killer from prosecution and from wrongful-death civil suits.

Despite the Martin case bringing "stand your ground" statutes under nationwide scrutiny, the bill has widespread support on Beacon Hill, where House and Senate co-sponsors say Massachusetts residents need this law for self-defense purposes. With that principle guiding, they're sticking to their guns.


In 2005, when then-governor Jeb Bush signed Florida's "justifiable use of force" bill, the law was the first of its kind in the country. NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer — who was instrumental in passing the bill and who, the St. Petersburg Times noted, "stared down legislators as they voted" on the measure — soon took her show on the road. That same year, Hammer and the NRA convinced the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — a consortium of conservative lawmakers and corporate lobbyists — to take up the cause. ALEC, in turn, developed a task force to promote "stand your ground." One of the task force's co-chairs, Janet Scott, was a private-sector delegate from America's largest seller of guns and ammo, Wal-Mart.

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