With the Justice Department under pressure to file civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, Attorney General Eric Holder has come out against the “stand your ground” law that, some say, encouraged Zimmerman to use deadly force against 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February of last year.
Under the law, a person who feels threatened has the right to use deadly force to defend themselves, and has no obligation to attempt retreat instead. Similar laws are on the books in more than 20 states.
Florida’s “stand your ground” laws did not form a part of the case for Zimmerman’s defense, but the court’s instructions to the jury used the statute’s language, making this law and others like it relevant to the case. The jury’s specific instructions included the directive to consider Zimmerman’s actions in the context of whether “he was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force.”
In a speech before the NAACP Annual Convention, Holder called “stand your ground” legislation “laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods…There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if – and the ‘if’ is important – if no safe retreat is available…By allowing – and perhaps encouraging – violent situations to escalate in public – such laws undermine public safety.”
Holder has come under fire from the National Rifle Association for his criticism of “stand your ground” laws. Executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, Chris W. Cox, says of Holder’s remarks, “The Attorney General fails to understand that self-defense is not a concept, it’s a fundamental human right. To send a message that legitimate self-defense is to blame is unconscionable, and demonstrates once again that this administration will exploit tragedies to push their political agenda.”
In his speech, Holder also spoke of times when he has himself been the target of racism. He’s not alone in calling for an end to “stand your ground” laws; the Rev. Al Sharpton and other members of the clergy are campaigning to overturn the law, and protestors have demanded a special legislative session to review the law. A spokeswoman for Florida Governor Rick Scott says that the governor asked a bipartisan task force to review the legislation shortly after Martin’s death, and that the task force agreed that the law should remain in place.
In spite of the outcry against “stand your ground” laws, Holder is largely powerless to combat them, since they exist on a state, rather than federal, level. Nevertheless, Holder has publicly announced that the case against Zimmerman is not closed, and has promised to lead a federal inquiry into the matter. Wednesday, the Justice Department released an open request for feedback on the Zimmerman case from the American public, who can email their thoughts to Sandford.Florida@usdoj.gov.
As if the pressure to pursue civil rights charges against Zimmerman weren’t enough, Holder is also facing pressure from Microsoft and communications companies to “personally take action” to lift the gag order that prevents these companies from sharing information about the NSA’s requests for customer data.
A post on the company’s blog said, “We believe the US constitution guarantees our freedom to share more information with the public, yet the government is stopping us. For example, government lawyers have yet to respond to the petition we filed in court on June 19, seeking permission to publish the volume of national security requests we have received. We hope the attorney general can step in to change this situation.”
A number of Internet companies are putting pressure on the Obama administration to scale back the NSA’s widespread collection of data on millions of American citizens. A coalition of companies, including Google, Apple, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as civil liberties unions including the ACLU, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are petitioning the president, Attorney General Holder, and Congress to mandate greater transparency in NSA surveillance.
Though the group isn’t demanding an end to surveillance, it is asking for the right to publish more information about surveillance requests, including their number and what sorts of information and data they involve.