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Democrats Try to Reverse Stand Your Ground in Appropriations Bill

In the House appropriations bill for Commerce, Justice and Science that will get preliminary votes today, Progressive Caucus co-chairs Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva will introduce a “Stop Shoot First Laws” amendment, a direct reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin, whose death and ensuing trial may turn on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

The full text of the amendment is below:

Page 44, line 6, insert before the semicolon the following: “Provided, That upon a determination by the Attorney General that a State has in effect a law allowing an armed person to confront an unarmed person in public and shoot to kill even if the confrontation could have been safely avoided, the Attorney General shall withhold 20 percent of the amount that would otherwise be allocated to that State under section 505 of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (42 U.S.C. 3755).”

Basically, this would impact Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) funding, a crime prevention program partnership between states and the Justice Department. Any state with a Stand Your Ground-type law would lose 20% of that JAG funding, under the amendment. This would encourage states to repeal those laws, according to Ellison and Grijalva.

It’s one of the first legislative responses in Congress to the shooting of Martin, whose death prompted nationwide outrage and eventually led to the arrest of neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. The Stand Your Ground law in Florida permits individuals licensed to carry a weapon to use deadly force if they perceive an imminent threat to themselves, According to Ellison and Grijalva, 24 states now have these kinds of laws, which have been promoted by the National Rifle Association and groups with influence in state legislatures, like ALEC.

In a statement, Ellison and Grijalva said, “Shoot first laws have already cost too many lives. In Florida alone, deaths due to self-defense have tripled since the law was enacted. Federal money shouldn’t be spent supporting states with laws that endanger their own people. This is no different than withholding transportation funds from states that don’t enforce seatbelt laws.”

Sadly, we don’t have an open amendment process in the House of Representatives, so it’s likely this amendment will never see a vote on the floor of the House. But it is significant that any lawmaker at all is trying to craft a legislative response to the Martin case.

In other amendments to the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill, Rep. Maxine Waters will try to include funding for the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) working group, the group co-chaired by Eric Schneiderman looking into fraud in the securitization markets by the leading banks during the housing bubble. The President requested $55 million for this purpose in his budget, but it predictably didn’t make its way into the House appropriation. Waters’ amendment would reduce NASA funding (already lowered by the phasing out of the Space Shuttle program) by around the same amount, and transfer that money, according to a Dear Colleague letter, to “help bring justice to defrauded investors, homeowners, and consumers.” Schneiderman told a Congressional Progressive Caucus panel last month, “we don’t have the resources yet,” referring to this $55 million in funds. Without it, it would be difficult to achieve even the minimal staffing earmarked for the working group.

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David Dayen

David Dayen