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George Zimmerman leaves the witness stand after testifying for an accused shooter in Florida. The hearing was held in the same coutroom in which Zimmerman was acquitted in the 2012 shooting of Trayon Martin.

Gun Policy

Missouri Considers a ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law That Would be the First Since the Trayvon Martin Shooting

The supercharged version Republican lawmakers are pushing adds an extra layer of protection for gun owners who kill while claiming self defense.

Early Wednesday, a committee of the Missouri State Senate held a hearing to discuss a bill that would allow civilians to use deadly force without first retreating upon perceiving a threat. Missourians are already legally allowed to use lethal power in their homes or on their property (a policy often called “the castle doctrine”). The Stand Your Ground law under consideration would allow “deadly force if necessary … wherever you have a right to be,” according to a local defense lawyer.

If Missouri’s Stand Your Ground passes, it would be the first state law of its kind to be implemented since George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in 2012. Wednesday’s hearing came less than a week after the four year anniversary of his death. Since then, no states have passed similar laws. Though Zimmerman did not actually mount a Stand Your Ground defense (he succeeded in trial with ordinary self defense arguments), his acquittal drew such scrutiny to the laws that some states have tried to repeal or weaken theirs since the incident.

The Missouri bill is just part of a spate of efforts to expand gun rights in the state, where at least four other pro-gun measures are already in consideration. Kurt Schaefer, the sponsor of the Stand Your Ground measure, is angling to win the state’s attorney general post in the November election, and he is looking to build on his ambitious pro-gun record. In 2014, he spearheaded an amendment to strengthen the Missouri state constitution’s right to bear arms clause. Its passage destabilized the state’s ban on felons possessing guns and temporarily restricted the prosecution of some gun crimes.

In addition to allowing the use of lethal force in public places, Schaefer’s new Stand Your Ground bill makes it more difficult for prosecutors to go after unlawful shooters who are trying to claim self defense. Ordinarily, someone who shoots in self defense has to prove that he felt there was an imminent threat to justify his actions. But a provision in Schaefer’s legislation  would shift that burden of proof to prosecutors, who would then have to show that a defendant didn’t actually feel threatened enough to use lethal force. A similar measure was introduced in the Florida legislature last fall (though it has been stalled by the House until the next legislative session). At the time, The Trace reported that this burden-shifting makes it “enormously more difficult” for prosecutors to go after unlawful shootings committed under the guise of self-defense.

Last year, the American Bar Association (ABA) assembled a task force to examine legal protections for lethal self defense. In the resulting report, the ABA recommended the repeal of Stand Your Ground laws. According to its research, a shooting is 350 percent more likely to be found justified if the shooter is white and the victim is black. The disparity fuels the ABA’s concern that racial bias plays a dominant role when a gun carrier decides someone is threatening — an assumption that shooters often get wrong. Prosecutors told the ABA that in most cases in which shooters invoke Stand Your Ground protections, they fired at unarmed threats.

Missouri’s Stand Your Ground bill must still face votes in the state house and senate. If passed, the law would go into effect on August 28, 2016.

[Photo: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP, Pool]