This week, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced its plans to begin a special investigation into how race plays a role in the enforcement of stand-your-ground criminal laws, also known as self-defense laws, across the country.
The investigation comes on the heels of the February shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, in a gated community in central Florida.
After Martin’s death, police did not initially charge Zimmerman with a crime because his actions were protected by Florida’s stand-your-ground statute, which allows citizens to use deadly force in the face of a deadly threat, according to a report from USA Today.
Many states have laws that do not allow the use of deadly force in self-defense if escape is an option, but Florida’s law allows people who are threatened with deadly force to respond in kind, even if escape is possible.
In his defense, Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense, but it was later revealed that Martin was unarmed at the time of his death, and the incident spurred a national debate over the effectiveness of these self-defense laws, especially in light of the delicate racial issues surrounding the case.
According to Michael Yaki, the leader of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “[w]e need to make sure claims of justifiable homicide are not being granted or denied because of the color of someone’s skin.”
And Yaki believes that the investigation, which will commence this week in Florida with a series of public hearings, is necessary because there is “an absolute lack of real data or information about how these stand-your-ground laws have been or are applied.”
Sources indicate that the investigation will focus on the 21 states that have some variation of Florida’s stand-your-ground law, and it will include numerous interviews with law enforcement officials across the country.
In addition to the federal investigation, Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, has also assembled a task force to review the state’s controversial law. The investigation team includes politicians, community members, and police.
Of course, despite all the criticism, Florida’s law still has its supporters. According to State Rep. Dennis Baxley, who originally championed the stand-your-ground bill, a “lot of the data still shows that it has been very effective in protecting people from harm and acts of violence.”
In response, sources observe that 34 percent of cases involving a white shooter killing a black person were deemed self-defense. In contrast, when the shooter was black, and the victim was white, the killing was only deemed self-defense 3 percent of the time.