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Testimony of Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner

Co-Founder, Executive Director, MomsRising

Hearing on “Stand Your Ground” Laws: Civil Rights and Public Safety Implications of the Expanded Use of Deadly Force

Before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, September 17, 2013


I am Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Co-founder and Executive Director of MomsRising. MomsRising is a 1.1-million strong, online and on-the ground grassroots organization working to improve the lives and the health of American families.

We have advocated for paid family leave, flexible work options, environmental and product safety, affordable childcare, and many other policies that families need. We also support common sense gun laws to better protect our families from gun violence. That includes calling into question “stand your ground” laws that threaten to put public safety at risk and compromise civil rights.

MomsRising has a diverse national membership. And we believe, as do our members, that we can wait no longer to stop the senseless killings that have plagued our nation for far too long.

We are pleased that this subcommittee is taking the time to examine “stand your ground” laws, which we believe often contribute to the problem of gun violence in this country.

In February 2012, a teenager went to the store to pick up candy and never returned home, a nightmare scenario for parents across the country. The tragic shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, highlighted the need to reconsider the validity and usefulness of “stand your ground” laws. Martin was an unarmed teenager who died needlessly. George Zimmerman’s profiling and following of Martin, against the instructions of authorities, was uncalled for. As a group representing moms of all races and ethnicities who want to keep their children and communities safe, we abhor the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and feel strongly that “stand your ground” laws should be repealed.

At least 20 states have laws that allow individuals to use deadly force without any requirement to evade or retreat from a dangerous situation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. While guns rights groups see “stand your ground” laws as empowering civilians, civil rights groups see the laws as encouraging violence and as racially biased.

A recent study suggests that “stand your ground” laws lead to more deaths. The researchers at Texas A&M University found that the rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased by 8 percent in states with “stand your ground” laws. That’s an additional 600 homicides per year in states that have enacted such laws. Our children’s very lives may hang in the balance.

These statistics are even more shocking when considered against the backdrop of the racial disparities in our criminal justice system. According to an Urban Institute study, when white shooters kill black victims, 34 percent of the resulting homicides are deemed “justifiable.” Only 3 percent of deaths are ruled “justifiable” when the shooter is black and the victim is white. “Justifiable” homicides are those defined by the FBI as when a private citizen kills someone who is committing a felony, such as attempted murder, rape or armed robbery.

Clearly, “stand your ground” laws can promote deadly aggression and often are applied unfairly when it comes to different races.

“Stand your ground” laws only add fuel to the fire of the nation’s simmering cauldron of gun violence. Nationally, 30 people are killed each day by guns. About one in five Americans know a recent victim of gun violence and twice as many worry about becoming a victim, according to a recent Kaiser Health Tracking Poll. Of the 20 percent of Americans who reported knowing a victim of gun violence in the past three years, 62 percent said the victim was a friend, family member or even themselves.

According to a recent New England Journal of Medicine article, guns are the second leading cause of death in young people aged 1 to 24 years old. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent gun violence found that U.S. children ages 5 to 14 are killed with guns at a rate 11 times higher than the combined rates of 22 other populous, high income countries.

We are outraged by these statistics, by these day-in-and-day-out tragedies. We are sickened and frightened by the far-too-many American families who lose children to gun violence every year.

That’s why MomsRising and our members felt it was imperative to lend our voices to this hearing, strongly urging Congress to reconsider “stand your ground” laws. One more tragic death resulting from “stand your ground” laws or any other kind of gun violence is too many.

For months, our members – moms, dads, grandparents and others from across the country – have been writing with their stories and encouraging us to step up the pressure to reduce and even prevent gun violence in this country. While they don’t directly address “stand your ground” law, they speak to the devastation that gun violence wreaks and those laws only perpetuate such violence. These are excerpts from just a few of the thousands of letters we have received.

G from Detroit, Michigan said:

“I am a teacher. I have taught at-risk youth for over 15 years, including four years in a juvenile detention facility. The gun violence in this country is unspeakable. I have lost count of the children I have lost to gun violence. In schools, on the streets, in stores, in homes. It is everywhere. I dare lawmakers to walk a day in the shoes of the people who actually deal with gun violence every day. I would bet that after just one day, they would run back to DC and pass every piece of gun legislation possible. I dare lawmakers to look into the faces of the families who have lost children to gun violence, and tell them guns are just a part of the American way of life. NOT ONE MORE!”

Baldr from Eugene, Oregon wrote:

“In 1990, I was 18 and went to the mall to pick up a friend. Two boys I didn’t know were arguing in the parking lot, surrounded by other teens who were watching and waiting for a fight. I moved in close to see what was happening, when one boy, aged 16, pulled a gun and shot the other, aged 18, in the head, killing him. The younger one fled. I tried to to feel the pulse of the victim. He died as I held him. I chased down the shooter, and scared him back to the scene, where he was arrested.”

Mary from Columbia, South Carolina wrote:

“I could tell of several family members, but I prefer to tell of my own experiences. When I was seven years of age, a large group of kids including myself were playing in front of the home in which I lived. We were playing tag and riding bicycles in the street, when right across the street in our presence, the ex-spouse of the lady that lived across the street, opened fire on the family, killing the lady, her mother and her brother. Then the man stood there with the gun in his hand. This image has never left my memory and has a lot to do with my views on having laws in place to remove, ban and take weapons out of our communities. It was later told to me, that the man purchased the weapon a couple days prior to killing this family from a pawn shop around the corner. If there were stronger laws in place, it could have changed everything. All of the children that played in the street that day with me still remember this crime like it was yesterday. Scars are forever, prevention protects. A life saved is precious and valuable, this could have been anyone’s story. We all have a history with crime related to weapons. Protect our future.”

Some of the MomsRising members we’ve heard from are also gun owners and NRA members, and they, too, are deeply concerned about gun laws, including the “stand your ground” laws, that fail to protect our children and our communities. It’s time to answer the countless pleas for help from parents and children across the country.

When George Zimmerman was allowed to walk away free after killing Trayvon Martin, our President shared his heartfelt sentiment. “When Trayvon Martin was first shot,” the president remarked, “I said that this could have been my son.”

As parents, we know how vulnerable children can be. That’s why, in the days before any arrest was made, MomsRising sent a member-signed letter to the Department of Justice on behalf of Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, petitioning for the prosecution of Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman.

MomsRising also supported the Dream Defenders, raising funds to assist them with their protests. The Dream Defenders are a group of young people who gathered at the Florida State Capitol, camped out and urged Florida Governor Rick Scott to call a special session of the Florida Legislature to address the issues at the center of the Trayvon Martin tragedy: “stand your ground” vigilantism, racial profiling, and a war on youth that paints young people as criminals. In the tradition of the 1961 Freedom Riders, these young people were pivotal in drawing attention to these important issues.

In commemoration of Trayvon Martin’s death, MomsRising launched the “Moms in Hoodies: Remembering Trayvon One Year Later” project, posting photos of moms in hoodies, much like the one Martin was wearing when he was killed, on the MomsRising Facebook page. As parents ourselves, we wanted to show solidarity Travyon’s grieving parents.

All of these actions were aimed at trying to foster a more just and secure world for our families and communities. “Stand your ground” laws and the gun violence they encourage impede us from reaching this goal. It’s time to take a stand against such laws. Let’s prevent the creation of any more grieving parents, families or communities resulting from mindless gun violence.

We thank Senator Durbin for holding this hearing and we strongly urge all members of Congress to reconsider “stand your ground” laws.  We also urge Congressional vigilance against efforts by the gun lobby to make changes to federal gun laws that will exacerbate the troubling impacts of “stand your ground” laws.




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