Fla. House committee rejects ‘stand your ground’ repeal effort

In a resounding vote Thursday, a Florida House Committee rejected a bill to repeal the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law, saying the law might need improvements, but that its essential protection of the right of self-defense is unshakeable.

When it was passed in 2005, “stand your ground” put “criminals on notice” that the law gives Floridians the right to protect themselves, House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said toward the end of a nearly four hours of testimony from opponents and supporters of the law.

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Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, makes his closing argument in an unsuccessful attempt to get a bill to repeal Florida’s “stand your ground” law out of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

The measure to repeal “stand your ground” was filed by state Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial, where Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin during a confrontation in Sanford in 2011.

National demonstrations – some of them violent – included a peaceful 31-day occupation of Florida’s Capitol by the Dream Defenders, a group demanding Florida repeal the law. Testimony Thursday included some members of the group, who said “stand your ground” had become a weapon used against minorities – particularly young black men.

Phillip Agnew, the Dream Defenders executive director, testified that the committee could face reaction during elections next year.

“We will indeed remember, remember the seventh of November,” he said.

Other testimony included the parents of Jordan Davis, a black teenager who was killed when a dispute over loud music in the parking lot of a Jacksonville turned deadly in November 2012.

Davis’s father, Ron Davis,  told committee members Thursday “stand your ground” played a role in his son’s killing.

“The person that murdered my son, he felt emboldened,” Davis said.

But discontent with “stand your ground” was overwhelmed by support among lawmakers like Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, who said the law was especially important for women and the elderly, potential victims who could be both unable to overcome a stronger attacker or physically unable to flee, whether an attack occurred on the street or at home.

And Williams’ bill would do more than repeal the “stand your ground” law. It would also repealed the “castle doctrine,” which ensures the rights of people to defend themselves in their homes against outside intrusion.

If “stand your ground” were repealed under Williams’ proposal, Floridians would once again have had to be able to prove they tried to retreat from an intruder before using deadly force against him.

That was going too far even for Democrats who think “stand your ground” needs to be modified. Of the committee’s five Democrats, only Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, and Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, voted for Williams’ bill.

“It’s not going to be repealed any time” soon, said Rep. Irv  Slosberg, D-Boca Raton. Instead of a repeal, he said lawmakers should work for a “sensible, moderate” compromise in the future.

Marion Hammer, Tallahassee lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said keeping “stand your ground” lawmakers would only be doing their duty by keeping the law intact.

“The law is supposed to be on the side of the victim,” she said, near the end of public testimony. “’Stand your ground’ puts the rights of the victims before the rights of assailants. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

With the effort dead in the House, “stand your ground” reform for the 2014 session will now move to the state Senate, Minority Leader Chris Smith said in a statement released late Thursday.

“I strongly believe that not only will the compromise solution be something that will make the law better, but Floridians safer,” Smith said. “And that has been the objective all along.”

Joe Saunders

Joe Saunders, a 25-year newspaper veteran, is a staff writer and editor for BizPac Review who lives in Tallahassee and covers capital and Florida politics. Email Joe at [email protected].

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