In response to the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the state legislature’s Black Caucus last week called for a review of the so-called “stand-your-ground” statute Tennessee has on the books.
“Over the next few months, we will work with our fellow Representatives to review Tennessee’s ‘stand-your-ground’ law to determine whether portions of the law need to be repealed or replaced in order to ensure the safety of all Tennessee residents,” Rep. Larry Miller, a Democrat from Memphis and chairman of the Black Caucus, said in a July 17 statement.
The Tennessee Black Caucus release noted that the National Black Caucus of State Legislators passed a resolution in December “urging state legislatures that have adopted ‘Stand Your Ground’ or ‘Shoot First’ laws to reform or repeal them and we also support the review and investigation by the United States Department of Justice referencing the Zimmerman case.”
Asked to respond to the Black Caucus statement, Tennessee House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada said he doubts there will be much enthusiasm among the Republican supermajority for repealing or substantially altering the law next year.
Casada said “it surprised me” that the Black Caucus would want to weaken the law, given that in 2007 lawmakers all but unanimously voted to expand the circumstances under which a person has the legal right to use deadly force in self defense.
“That law was vetted through the committee system and it allows for law-abiding citizens to defend themselves,” said Casada. “Maybe [the Black Caucus] misunderstood what the law does. The law doesn’t say go out and shoot people. It says that if a reasonable person fears for his safety or his life then he can defend himself, so that’s good public policy.”
Casada, R-Franklin, rejected the idea that there’s racial bias in the law, saying it grants legal protections to all. “I don’t see color in there anywhere,” he said.
Miller didn’t answer a request for comment on this article.
No one in the 2007 Tennessee General Assembly voted against the legislation, which generally stated that if a person is in no way acting unlawfully or provoking aggression — and if they have a legal right to be in a particular place — then they are not obligated to retreat from a criminal threat of violence. The law states that a person is legally justified in hurting or killing an aggressor if acting under “reasonable belief that there is an imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.”
The legislation passed 32-0 in the Senate and 96-0 in the House. Rep. Barbara Cooper, a Memphis Democrat, abstained from voting. At that time, Jimmy Naifeh, a Democrat, was speaker of the House, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, was serving in his first year as speaker of the Senate. The law was signed by Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, in May 2007.
Ironically, the state’s staunchest gun-rights group, the Tennessee Firearms Association, opposed the self-defense doctrine rewrite — albeit because it didn’t go far enough. The group’s executive director, John Harris, worried at the time — and still does — that a person may be guilty of some relatively innocuous infraction of the law at a time they find themselves the victim of a violent crime, and then subsequently denied “stand your ground” legal protections. An example, he said, might be if a person is carjacked while driving with expired insurance, or they have a code violation on their property during a home invasion.
“You shouldn’t be denied the presumption of self defense because your grass is an inch too high,” said Harris.