The shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is leading to a burst of legislative and policy thinking about how to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers are renewing a push on a provision called the “End Racial Profiling Act” that would outlaw racial profiling and make it easier for people to file lawsuits against policy departments who they feel unfairly target them. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the advocacy group Color of Change are advocating the repeal of “Stand Your Ground” laws in more than two dozen states around the country.
Gun control groups like the Brady Campaign have renewed calls for tighter measures on handgun purchases. They have dubbed a new proposal by gun rights groups that would allow concealed weapon permits to be recognized across state lines as “George Zimmerman Armed Vigilante Act” and are hoping Congress will stop considering the idea after the Martin shooting.
The groups are looking to seize the attention around the Martin shooting to energize campaigns on issues that have long languished. In particular, gun control groups have watched as state legislatures and Congress continue to make it easier to possess firearms. In 2009, President Obama signed a provision allowing people to bring loaded guns into national parks.
In the past, these kinds of controversies have inspired new legislation. For example, the 1994 rape and murder of Megan Kanka by a man who had previously been found guilty of sexual assault lead to “Megan’s laws,” which require people who have committed sexual crimes to register where they live.
“We need to have a national conversation about racial profiling now,” Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) said in a Tuesday hearing on racial profiling on Capitol Hill. Wilson is calling for passage of a federal racial profiling law, and also a national commission to investigate racial disparities, particularly those affecting black men and boys.
The proposals, in some ways, are illustrating surprising tensions on the issues Bloomberg has openly criticized Obama for not doing enough on gun control. The president, on the other hand, has barely mentioned the issue, even after Bloomberg push after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011.
But Bloomberg has been under fire from civil rights groups for the “stop and frisk” policy in New York, in which officers are allowed to search people on the street who they suspect may be involved in criminal activity, even without any kind of warrant. Eight-seven percent of people stopped by the police are black or Latino, according to the New York Times, but Bloomberg has defended the practice as reducing crime.
Ben Jealous, the head of the NAACP, is allied with Bloomberg against “Stand Your Ground” laws, but recently dubbed him “the biggest proponent of racial profiling in this country right now,” according to the Times Union newspaper in Albany, New York.
It’s not clear if the provisions being advanced now would prevent a shooting like what happened in Florida almost two months ago. Zimmerman had a legal permit for a gun, and some advocates of “Stand Your Ground” laws say Zimmerman’s decision to shoot does not appear to be protected by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. And racial profiling laws would most directly affect police departments, while the evidence that has been made public suggests Zimmerman ignored the instructions of Sanford Police by approaching Martin.
Much of this legislation may have trouble being passed. So far, there has been little momentum to repeal existing “Stand Your Ground” laws, although the controversy may prevent them from passing in other states. The hearing on Capitol Hill on racial profiling on Tuesday did not include any Republicans, whose support would be needed to push through any law.
The most tangible result so far was Tuesday’s announcement by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that previously supported “Stand Your Ground” laws at the state level, that it will no longer advance those initiatives.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr