What was the surest winning bet in Florida last week? That the legislative committee hearing on repealing the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law would end up with a lopsided No vote. The roll-back effort never had a chance.
But you can’t fault the repeal’s supporters for trying. Not with a self-defense law that gives immunity to someone who shoots first and asks questions later. Stand Your Ground garnered national attention after Sanford neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager from Miami Gardens, in 2012. When Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted of a second-degree murder charge by a jury last summer, both sides of the controversy erupted in renewed arguments for and against the law. Mr. Zimmerman didn’t claim a Stand Your Ground defense, but the law’s language was included in instructions to the jury.
Following the acquittal, a group of young activists held a 31-day protest outside Gov. Rick Scott’s office, demanding that he call a special legislative session on the self-defense law.
The governor refused, but the protesters, known as the Dream Defenders, got the ear of Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, who agreed to hold a hearing on the law this fall. And so the supporters and opponents of the 2005 Stand Your Ground law gathered in Tallahassee on Nov. 7 for a five-hour hearing chaired by Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who does not support, in his words, “changing one damn comma” of the law.
In the end, after emotional testimony from shooting victims’ relatives seeking either a repeal or to tighten the law’s language and equally ardent testimony from the law’s supporters, the House Criminal Justice subcommittee voted 11-2 to keep the law exactly the same. A sure bet, indeed.
The committee did approve one change in separate bill. By a 12-1 vote, the lawmakers passed a proviso ensuring that people who fire a warning shot when feeling threatened aren’t subject to the minimum mandatory sentencing law called 10-20-Life.
The bill is a response to the case of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who was sentenced to the mandatory 20 years in prison for aggravated assault — for firing a shot in the air to ward off her husband during a domestic dispute. Ms. Alexander used the Stand Your Ground law to claim immunity from prosecution, but a jury found her guilty. She’s been granted a new trial by an appellate court, which ruled that her trial judge didn’t give correct instructions on the self-defense law to the jury.
And there’s the major problem with Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute. It is so loosely written that the self-defense claim often is interpreted differently in separate cases. Where one individual is acquitted for feeling threatened enough to shoot and kill another person under the law, the next individual is found guilty for simply firing a warning shot in self-defense.
While the warning-shot immunity bill makes sense, the committee’s refusal to tighten the statute’s wording to clear up the confusion and end the disparate court interpretations of what constitutes a justified shooting is disappointing.
There’s another chance to right the wrongs in the Stand Your Ground law when the Legislature convenes in March. Repeal is a non-starter. But lawmakers should find enough consensus to clarify who has the legal presumption of impunity when shooting at someone else in a threatening situation.