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Martin Trayvon shooting renews debate over 'stand your ground' laws

Outrage over the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen killed by a white crime watch volunteer, has focused new attention on the Stand Your Ground law

Outrage over the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen killed by a white crime watch volunteer, has focused new attention on the Stand Your Ground law in Florida (and 16 other states).

Florida Sen. Oscar Braynon, who represents the Miami Gardens district where Trayvon Martin's mother lives, is calling for legislative hearings into the Stand Your Ground law.

The law, which permits those in Florida "to meet force with force, including deadly force" when attacked, may have set the stage for Martin's shooter to walk away from this killing without ever being charged.

The law reads, in part:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

In other words, as Ed said on last night's The Ed Show, "you can play judge, jury and executioner if you want to and skirt the law."

Floridians already had the right to defend themselves against home intruders under what is known as the Castle Doctrine, but with "stand your ground," they could also do so in public.  The principle of "shoot first, ask questions later" was no longer confined to one's home.

The National Rifle Association, with former NRA President Marion Hammer serving as primary lobbyist, pushed hard for the bill's passage.

But law enforcement officials, including the police chiefs of Miami and St. Petersburg and the sheriff of Broward County, overwhelmingly opposed the law.  Miami Police Chief John F. Timoney called the bill 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," Chief Timoney said at the time, "you're encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn't be used."

But then-Governor Jeb Bush, brother of then-President George W. Bush, ignored their advice and expertise and signed the bill on April 26, 2005.

Bush, a Republican, said he signed it because when people faced life-threatening situations, "to have to retreat and put yourself in a very precarious position defies common sense."

But since Bush signed the law, common sense has gone flying out the door.  The number of justifiable homicides nearly tripled from 12 per year (2000-2004) to about 35 per year (2005-2010).  Simply stated, "stand your ground" law in Florida virtually tied the hands of law enforcement when it comes to prosecuting these cases.

For example, prosecutors declined to pursue criminal charges against a 62-year-old man who killed another man in a road rage episode last fall, saying his actions were found to be covered under Florida's "stand your ground" law.

Police say that prosecutors have told them they don't have enough evidence to dispute George Zimmerman's claim that he acted in self-defense in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. 

"If we arrest, we open ourselves to a lawsuit," said Sgt. Dave Morgenstern, a spokesman with the Sanford Police Department. 

"This is dangerous as a law," Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told Ed on last night's The Ed Show on msnbc.  "It's a bad law if it lets murderers walk away uncharged.  But as bad as it is a law, it's just as dangerous as a state of mind, and it's a state of mind that permits things like this, encourages things like this to happen."

Ed will have the latest developments on the Trayvon Martin shooting case, tonight on The Ed Show at 8pET on msnbc.