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Revive sensible gun laws

Supporters of the protests that followed the suspicious death of Trayvon Martin are raising a good question: What next?

Many have compared the shooting of the 17-year-old Floridian to the brutal 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the black Chicago teenager murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

The comparison is far from perfect. George Zimmerman, 28, the volunteer neighborhood watchman charged with second-degree murder in the shooting of the unarmed youth, claims self-defense. Till's murderers were enforcing the old South's willfully racist political and social system.

But as markers of their very different eras, the two cases have much in common. Till's death inspired Rosa Parks a few months later to refuse to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus. Her move helped launch the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts, a decade of protests and landmark civil rights legislation.

If the Martin protesters are looking for a similar channel for their anger and energies, they have a perfectly appropriate target in "stand your ground" laws.

Police cited Florida's "stand your ground" law as one reason why Zimmerman was released without charges after the shooting, a move that sparked protests by Martin's family and their supporters nationwide. Florida's law says a law-abiding person "who is attacked" has "no duty to retreat" when attacked and "has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm."

Two problems: The law is unnecessary and downright dangerous. Your basic right to defend yourself has been embedded for centuries in the "Castle Doctrine" (from the old dictum "an Englishman's home is his castle") in English common law and the statutes of most states.

The stand your ground law, signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005, expanded that right to allow anyone, anywhere, to use deadly force against another person if he or she "reasonably believes" it is necessary for self-protection.

I'm not a zealot for banning all privately owned guns. Unfortunately, anything approaching reasonable, common-sense gun laws has become almost impossible against the onslaught of zealotry from the other side.

Stand your ground laws, for example, are a great triumph of powerful lobbies like the National Rifle Association and ultraconservative allies like the American Legislative Exchange Council. Lest they become victims of their own success, just about every victory they have seems to be followed by a push toward a new extreme.

The gun lobby pushes not only to pass extreme new laws like stand your ground but also to roll back reasonable common-sense reforms -- like Virginia's recent repeal of its 19-year-old limit on personal handgun purchases to one gun a month.

"Common sense" is a widely overused term, yet it seems to suitably describe a limit of 12 guns per year, especially to strike a blow against a criminal underground that gives law-abiding gun owners a bad name.

Actor Bill Cosby made a good point when he recently said the debate over the killing of Martin should be focused on guns, not race. There may be no more fitting memorial to the slain teenager than to revive some common sense in our gun laws.