Politico And The "Federal Debate" Over Kill At Will Laws

Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

In an article entitled "No gun-control debate over Trayvon," Politico reports: "Despite an arrest this week in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, new gun-control measures aren't even being debated in Washington." The article goes on to comment that "a federal debate" over the Kill at Will statute that may prevent the successful prosecution of Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, "is strangely lacking since there is no federal equivalent of the state laws."

Politico portrays this as evidence of the power of the gun lobby and weakness of the gun violence prevention community. But there is a good reason why no federal legislation to override such state statutes hasn't been produced, and thus why there is no "federal debate" -- such a statute would almost certainly be unconstitutional.

Thanks to the efforts of the National Rifle Association, laws similar to Florida's statute have been passed in dozens of states. Why have they focused on states rather than pushing for federal legislation? Because such self-defense laws are fundamentally part of the state criminal code, acting on the circumstances in which homicides, assaults, and manslaughters can be prosecuted.

In United States v. Lopez, the Supreme Court overturned a federal statute banning possession of firearms at public schools, finding that failure to do so would "convert congressional Commerce Clause authority to a general police power of the sort held only by the State." In their brief to the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration acknowledged that "States historically have been sovereign" in issues of "general criminal law." An attempt to overturn state self-defense laws would almost certainly run afoul of the same problem.

Meanwhile, Politico ignores how Martin's killing has led to a debate over such laws at the state level, where such activities are properly focused. As BloombergBusinessweek reported last month, the NRA is facing "mounting challenges" in its effort to promote such laws across the country: "Legislation in New York and Iowa stalled in committees as lawmakers in Georgia, Texas and other states said they would try to repeal laws already on the books."

Those efforts will receive a boost from a broad coalition of civil rights groups calling for such repeals. On Wednesday New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a national campaign to overturn the state statutes, joining the NAACP, National Urban League, ColorOfChange and National Action Network to promote a "Second Chance on Shoot First." The group will encourage "politicians who originally supported these reckless laws to examine the facts, listen to law enforcement and prosecutors, and join other elected officials in reforming or repealing these laws."

While Martin's killing won't result in a federal repeal of state Kill at Will laws, it may impact the NRA's push to pass a federal mandate forcing each state to recognize the concealed carry permits of all the other states.

Gun violence prevention activists have pointed out that Zimmerman, despite having been arrested for an altercation with a police officer and having had a protective order entered against him for domestic violence, had been granted a concealed carry permit under Florida's lenient system. As Brady Campaign president Dan Gross has noted, "If these laws passed, George Zimmerman would be able to carry his loaded weapon into Times Square or the streets of Los Angeles. They would force the entire country to live by the laws that killed Trayvon Martin."

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Guns
Guns, National Rifle Association
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.