Ky. must change its stand-your-ground law to make it fairer

July 18, 2014 

State Sen. Reginald L. Thomas is a Lexington Democrat.

  • About the author: State Sen. Reginald L. Thomas is a Lexington Democrat.

What may have started out as an ordinary evening in February 2012, ended with a dead teen-ager and a national controversy that is still unresolved.

The fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the subsequent not-guilty verdict of the shooter, George Zimmerman, on July 13, 2013, prompted citizens across the nation to question the "stand-your-ground" laws.

Such laws, often criticized as being "shoot first" laws, make it hard to prosecute cases against people who shoot others and then claim self-defense.

Kentucky, as well as the other states with such laws, should revise them so that the one who initiates a confrontation is denied that shield of protection.

On the one-year anniversary of Zimmerman's acquittal by a Florida jury, I pre-filed a bill with that very intent.

No one would argue that a person should not defend oneself when attacked. However, stand-your-ground laws can also become a mechanism to continue to promulgate racism, probably not intentionally.

An article on racial profiling in The Christian Science Monitor in July 2013 showed that whites who shoot black attackers are more successful in stand-your-ground defenses than blacks who shoot white attackers.

Whites using the defense in the shooting of a black person are found to be justifiable 17 percent of the time, but in the reverse situation, the black shooter is found justified only about nine percent of the time.

As an African-American, I am aware of the challenge to remove racial disparities in our social system. I am very conscious that whites and blacks still live in different Americas.

Life is definitely better for blacks now than it was 50 years ago prior to the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I am a beneficiary of the struggles and sacrifices of the civil rights movement and have attained access denied my parents.

However, when I hear that the state unemployment rate of blacks doubles that of whites, I know that skin color is significant in obtaining a job.

When I read about the achievement gaps in Fayette County public schools between black students and white students, I know that race influences educational success.

When statistics in Kentucky reveal that the percentage of blacks in prison is greater than the percentage of blacks in the state, I know that race matters in our criminal-justice system.

When a child is killed while walking home from the store because a grown man did not like his looks, the scars of racial injustice remain evident upon the visage of America.

Martin likely would be alive today if Zimmerman had just complied with the police dispatcher's request for him to remain in his car and await law enforcement.

Just after the acquittal, I was reminded of a conversation my mother had with me when I was a teenager. I am certain that her message has been shared many times in the African-American community. She cautioned me that there would be times when I should expect different and unfair treatment solely because I was black.

She said that my response should not be to act out in anger, but to remain calm and in control.

Sadly, many years later, I had the same conversation with my adolescent daughter and sons. Most black parents have this conversation with their children because of the lessons of history.

No parent wants to get a phone call or a visit at the door because there has been a mistake and their child is dead. I am hopeful that Kentucky will take a step forward as the General Assembly considers my legislation in the upcoming session.

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