Bill to repeal 'Stand Your Ground' defeated
Published: Friday, November 8, 2013 at 11:48 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 8, 2013 at 11:48 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE -- After hours of passionate debate before hundreds of people, a Florida House panel Thursday rejected a bill that would have repealed the state's 2005 “stand your ground” self-defense law.
The outcome was never in doubt.
By an 11-2 vote, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee defeated the bill (HB 4003) by Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, saying the current law gives Floridians more protection from crime.
"We stand and defend what is ours," said Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness. " 'Stand your ground' is core to our American way of life."
The Florida law, a model for similar laws in other states, allows people to use deadly force when they feel their lives are in danger. It provides immunity from prosecution or civil lawsuits. An expansion of the traditional Castle Doctrine, “stand your ground” gives people the right to defend themselves with deadly force in their own homes or any place they have a right to be.
The law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, but has been under fire since 17-year-old Trayvon Martin's shooting death last year. The Sanford police did not arrest neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, the acknowledged shooter, for six weeks --- until protests spread across the country.
Thursday's hearing was the result of Zimmerman's acquittal in July. Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense, but did not use "stand your ground" to avoid being prosecuted. The law, however, spawned changes to jury instructions that at least one Zimmerman juror said resulted in the not-guilty verdict.
The acquittal sparked a march to the Capitol by protesters who staged a 31-day sit-in outside Gov. Rick Scott's office. Known as the Dream Defenders, they argued that “stand your ground” targets black and Hispanic youths, especially males. They asked for a special legislative session, which they didn't get. But they got a hearing.
House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, however, made it clear that while he valued the debate, he would oppose any changes to the law.
"I have to believe that 'stand your ground' has put criminals on notice that Floridians are done being hapless victims," the Fort Walton Beach Republican said.
Dozens of people spoke, almost evenly divided between pro and con.
Ed Robbeloff of Fort Walton Beach said Williams' bill "looks to put the burden on the victim and not the perpetrator of the crime."
Sean Holloway, 14, of Tallahassee said he felt unsafe under the current law. "It gives anyone the right to kill young black men who look like me."
Among those opposing Williams' bill were representatives of the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Public Defender Association. So were citizens who described how much safer they felt under "stand your ground."
Among the backers of the repeal bill were Lucia McBath and Ron Davis, parents of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. The unarmed teen was shot and killed at a Jacksonville gas station last year. Angered by an argument over loud music, 45-year-old Michael Dunn took his gun out and opened fire.
"My son was gunned down by a man with violence in his heart…angered and empowered by his gun and by Florida's 'stand your ground' law," McBath said.
The hearing included a running dispute over whether or not African Americans are targeted by the law.
Dale Landry, an official with the Florida NAACP, said blacks are subject to irrational fears "even if you're posing no threat at all."
"We live with fear," said Phillip Agnew, leader of the Dream Defenders. "We do not feel safe."
But John Henry of Monticello spoke for many when he said the current law works as it should. The proof, he said, was that the man who'd allegedly shot Jordan Davis was in police custody.
"Where's Michael Dunn now?" Henry demanded. "He's in jail in Duval County, awaiting trial on murder charges --- where he should be. The law isn't broken."
The debate was spirited, with speakers alternating between backers and opponents of Williams' measure. The imbalance was among the lawmakers. When Williams introduced his bill, no Democrats joined him --- whereas the bill's bipartisan opponents took turns bashing it.
Just the day before, House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, called a press conference to praise a much different "stand your ground" bill (SB 130) moving in the Senate. That measure, by Sens. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, would require law enforcement officers to fully investigate claims of self-defense and create guidelines for neighborhood watch groups.
Williams had difficulty under a barrage of questions from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike. To those who expressed concern that repealing the law would put Floridians more at risk in their homes, he said common law would protect them. He asked the panel to pass the bill so that it could be improved at its next committee stop.
"Let's repair the divide, seen or unseen, that this law appears to have given communities across the state," Williams said.
Only the black males on the panel --- Reps. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, and Kionne McGhee, D-Miami ---- voted in favor.
After the vote, Gaetz and Williams embraced, and Gaetz dismissed the Senate bill by Simmons and Smith as "an exercise in style over substance."
"There is no meaningful reform currently moving through the Florida Senate," he said. "I think you've got a couple of senators who just want to see something pass, even though it doesn't fundamentally alter the rights of Floridians in a favorable way."
But despite the bill's decisive defeat, lobbyist Karen Woodall said the debate itself would have an impact.
"The breadth of testimony will lead to change in time," she predicted.
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.