Democrats underscored the party’s division over Florida’s “stand your ground” law by calling a press conference the day before legislators meet to discuss a possible repeal effort, the chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee said Wednesday.
“You’ve got a Democratic caucus that is itself divided,” state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, told reporters after a news conference in the House Democratic Office. Moments earlier, Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, announced that Democrats are looking for substantive changes in the law.
The news conference’s timing — a day before state Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, gets a hearing on his bill to repeal “stand your ground” — showed Democrats have confused messages, Gaetz said.
“House Democrats have found themselves on the wrong side of the issue,” he told reporters.
The hearing on Williams’ bill, HB 4003, is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. Thursday.
At the news conference, Thurston said House Democrats are focusing on Senate efforts to fix what Democrats consider flaws in the law, passed it in 2005 and signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
A Senate bill sponsored by state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, aims to clarify some provisions, including new requirements for standards for neighborhood watch groups and definitions allowing the initial aggressor in a confrontation to use it as a defense.
The law has been a lightning rod for the state, especially after Sanford resident George Zimmerman was acquitted in July of killing teenager Trayvon Martin during a confrontation in 2011. While Zimmerman didn’t use “stand your ground” as a defense, the shooting galvanized liberals in an attack on gun laws in Florida and across the nation.
Wednesday’s news conference, Thurston said, was intended to push the party to make fine-tuning the law a priority, not act as a “big photo op for what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
“What is it state attorneys and sheriffs want?” he said. “What would be able to let us not be in a Wild West situation?”
Those answers aren’t likely to come from a hearing based on repealing the law in a Legislature dominated by Republicans who favor it, he said.
“We don’t know exactly what they’re going to do” at the subcommittee hearing, Thurston said. “Probably not going to do one damn thing.”
Gaetz said the subcommittee would give the repeal bill the hearing it deserves.
“My job is to put bills on the agenda that are worthy of debate,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean any repeal effort is going anywhere.
“The Wild, Wild West was Florida before the ‘stand your ground’ law,” Gaetz said. “The people of Florida don’t want to see ‘stand your ground’ repealed.”