WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted on Friday to launch an investigation into whether "Stand Your Ground" laws around the country have a racial bias.
These statutes gained attention after the February 2012 fatal shooting of Travyon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager. Authorities initially refused to arrest neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman, who is accused of shooting Martin, citing Florida's Stand Your Ground law. These measures allow individuals to stand their ground and use deadly force in self-defense, with no obligation to first attempt to retreat.
During a meeting in downtown Washington, D.C., on Friday, the commission approved the investigation in a 5-3 vote, with one Republican commissioner joining the four Democrats. The board is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, although two of the GOP members identify as independent after an attempt during the George W. Bush administration to stack the board. (The commission's charter says no more than four members can belong to the same political party.)
The push for an investigation was led by Democratic Commissioner Michael Yaki.
"This is something the commission has not done in decades -- a full-blown field investigation of an issue with potential civil rights ramifications," Yaki told The Huffington Post, explaining that much of their work in recent years has focused instead on briefings and receiving testimony.
"We're going to take our own cut at it, go down, dig through records at the district attorney, police level and other things, and start going through ... to see whether or not, as some people suspect, that there is bias in the assertion or the denial of Stand Your Ground, depending on the race of the victim or the race of the person asserting the defense," he said.
Gail Heriot, one of the independent members who voted against the investigation, said she believed the matter was simply too big for the agency's staff to handle.
"I believe that what's being proposed here is much, much too complicated for our commission to undertake," Heriot said at the meeting. "This is a big issue, but there's not much in the way of data."
Todd Gaziano, a Republican commissioner who is also a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, proposed an amendment that would investigate whether state gun control laws hurt "minorities who live in high-crime neighborhoods" and may be unable to protect themselves because their "Second Amendment rights are restricted or abridged."
The commission voted down that amendment in a 5-2 vote, with one abstention.
Last year, the commission also voted 5-3 to authorize staffers at the small federal agency, created through the Civil Rights Act of 1957, to investigate Stand Your Ground. The problem at that time, Yaki said, was that the group lacked both a staff director for the agency and the funds to move forward. Now, they have both.
Yaki estimated that the cost of the inquiry could total as much as $100,000.
"No study has attempted, to date, to review possible racial basis in the operation of Stand Your Ground laws in the post-police investigative stage in the administrative justice. ... That's why the budget is so high," said Yaki during the meeting on Friday. "The kind of research we're going to be doing is not simply that which is ordinarily reported just to the FBI or Department of Justice statistics. This is actually going to be going down into courtrooms, into certain jurisdictions."
Twenty-four states have Stand Your Ground laws. The statutes have been backed by the National Rifle Association and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which lost some of its corporate backers after its role in pushing Stand Your Ground laws came to light.
The commission's investigation will likely focus on Florida, Michigan and South Carolina.
A June 2012 study by the Tampa Bay Times found that in Florida, defendants citing the Stand Your Ground law were more likely to prevail if the victim was black. Seventy-three percent of people who killed a black person walked away with no penalty, compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white victim.