Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford recently asked some excellent questions:
“Does the law keep the innocent safer? Is it being applied fairly? Are there ways we can make this law clearer and more understandable?”
He was referring to the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law, after the July acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Speaker Weatherford raised the questions when he recently announced that he would order hearings on the law. That’s the good news. The not-so-encouraging news is that the hearings will be chaired by state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, a staunch supporter of the law who opposes even modest tweaks. It will be up to Rep. Weatherford to make sure the hearings are full and fair — meaning both supporters and opponents of the now-controversial law can have their say and be heard with respect.
Truth is, there is zero hope that the law will be repealed by a GOP-led Legislature. In fact, when it was approved in 2005, Stand Your Ground, which eliminated the words citing “a citizen’s duty to retreat” in most public confrontations, had Democratic support, too. It passed the state Senate 39-0. In the House, 20 Democrats voted against it. Strengthening a self-defense law made sense to many legislators on both sides of the aisle.
But since then, it’s become clear that there is need to improve the law’s wording and clarify the definition of “stand your ground.” Consider: A 2012 Tampa Bay Times investigation showed that in 200 cases where a Stand Your Ground defense was used, nearly 70 percent of those who invoked it avoided prosecution. Worse, the investigation found that defendants, regardless of race, were more likely to prevail in court if their victims were black. And conflicting judges’ decisions in several Stand Your Ground defense cases in South Florida have shown the law to be subject to arbitrary interpretations and desperately in need of clear guidelines.
Before the Miami Gardens’ teen’s shooting death one rainy night in Sanford in 2012, Stand Your Ground largely was unchallenged. It still has a majority of support among Floridians. But Trayvon’s death, and Zimmerman’s self-defense justification for shooting the unarmed teenager, have riveted state and national attention on the law.
Once again, Florida has drawn ridicule, including being labeled the “Gunshine” state. Some civil rights leaders and a few entertainers are calling for a state boycott.
Florida leaders’ response has been uninspired, with Gov. Rick Scott sniping at critics and would-be boycotters. He has refused to convene a special session of the Legislature sought by the Dream Defenders, young protesters who have spent two weeks occupying part of the Capitol outside his office.
There has been a lot of misinformation on the airwaves and Internet about the law and about Florida, with overheated rhetoric on both sides. So good for Speaker Weatherford for asking the right questions about the law and creating a forum to provide answers. Rep. Gaetz must show similar leadership and an open mind when he chairs the hearings, which should be scheduled soon.
Job 1 is to follow through to make sure that the law gets an honest, credible hearing so that Floridians can feel safer. Stand Your Ground must never be a license to kill with impunity.
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