The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Stand Your Ground for safety’s sake

 

OUR OPINION: Legislature should tighten the vague law that has let criminals use it as a defense in shootings

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

A handful of Democratic state lawmakers, standing beside Trayvon Martin’s mother, proposed legislation last week to repeal Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue — it’s a public safety issue.

The law, approved in 2005, rocketed to national attention last spring after the unarmed Miami teen was fatally shot in Sanford by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

The proposal to repeal the law by Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, and Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, has a remote chance in a Republican controlled Legislature, especially in the current, highly charged gun control debate gripping the nation. But there are other proposals, too, to scale back the self-defense statute which was meant to allow people who fear for their lives to use deadly force.

Unfortunately, the law is written so vaguely that judges have been forced to set free criminals who used Stand Your Ground as a defense.

Gov. Rick Scott has said that reviewing gun laws is “the right thing to do.” House and Senate leaders should make sure these bills get a full airing. It’s the least the Legislature can do.

A governor’s committee, formed after the Feb. 26 shooting, has already decreed the law basically fine as is. That rubber-stamp approval was predictable. The 19-member committee — which included two lawmakers who helped draft the law, two who had voted for it and one who was chief sponsor of another NRA-backed law prohibiting doctors from asking patients about guns — spent six months traveling the state, taking testimony and considering the law before concluding it needs almost no tweaking. That was disappointing.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle proposed several significant changes to restrict the law. They were mostly rejected by the other task force members. Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, offered the group several recommendations from a task force he had commissioned in April. Most were not adopted by the state’s task force.

But the committee did emerge with some proposed changes. It recommended the Legislature look more closely at the language determining who could claim self-defense under the Stand Your Ground law. It recommended changes to discourage neighborhood watch volunteers from engaging in vigilantism, and it asked the Legislature and the law enforcement community to spend more time clarifying what the law means for police.

Making the law more specific, less murky, would be a start. In the Trayvon Martin case, for example, police originally declined to charge Mr. Zimmerman, sparking nationwide protests. But after a special prosecutor stepped in, Mr. Zimmerman was arrested. He’s awaiting trial on second-degree murder charges.

As the nation embarks on a reexamination of U.S. gun laws in the wake of the Newtown slaughter, Florida has an obligation to its citizens to thoroughly reconsider the Stand Your Ground law. Florida was the second state in the nation to pass such a law, helping to lead the way on the issue — and with leadership comes responsibility. Many law enforcement officers say the law has been inconsistently applied.

In Trayvon Martin’s case and others yet to come, the clarity of this law really is a life or death matter.

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