Gov. Rick Scott doesn’t want to change Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, and public opinion polls and even Democrats indicate the Republican might be on safe political ground.
The self-defense law became central to the nation’s political debate over guns after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in last year’s shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old from Miami Gardens.
A group of liberal-leaning protesters has occupied the governor’s office lobby calling for immediate changes to Stand Your Ground, echoing calls from activist and MSNBC host Al Sharpton.
But the exact role of Stand Your Ground in the verdict is unclear, and a new poll released last week showed 50 percent of Floridians support keeping the law intact, 31 percent want it changed and only 13 percent want a full repeal.
Though the poll was conducted by a Republican-led firm, Viewpoint Florida, the findings jibe with four other nonpartisan Florida surveys that have shown even greater support for the self-defense law, which gives a person more rights to use deadly force without having to retreat first in a confrontation.
The three Democrats who have the best shot at facing Scott in next year’s election say the law should be modified — not repealed — but they aren’t making Stand Your Ground a top issue, either.
“I don’t think it’s the litmus test for the election,” said former state Sen. Nan Rich, the only major announced candidate.
“There should be a discussion about it,” said Rich, who met Saturday with the Dream Defenders in Tallahassee. “But it’s not a litmus issue.”
Rich voted for Stand Your Ground in 2005 when it passed the Legislature.
Since that time, she said, she has seen the need to modify it because numerous cases throughout Florida have shown how the law has been applied unevenly and allowed what look like hardened criminals to go free in some cases.
Scott, however, said the law doesn’t need to be changed.
“What we ought to be doing is mourning the loss of a young man,” he said last week. “We ought to be praying about how we bring our state back together. We ought to be praying for unity.”
Scott said he wouldn’t call for a special lawmaking session, as demanded by the Dream Defenders.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Democrat who is leaning toward running against Scott, said he would be inclined to call for a special session to modify the law, but acknowledged that resistance in the GOP-led House and Senate would make that close to impossible.
Crist was Florida’s Republican attorney general when the law passed and supported it at the time. “There is a need for change,” Crist said.
And former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat who’s also considering a run, also shares Crist’s view about the need to clarify the law. She and Crist describe themselves the same way when it comes to guns.
“I’m pro Second Amendment,” said Sink, whose 2010 running mate, former state Sen. Rod Smith, was a leading gun-rights advocate in the Legislature. “That doesn’t mean I’m against common-sense reforms.”
Democratic and Republican consultants say there are good reasons for Democrats to not zealously advocate for scaling back Stand Your Ground: Florida — a state with more than 1.1 million concealed-weapon permit holders — has a strong gun culture.
And gun-rights boosters, nominally led by the National Rifle Association, tend to vote their issue in bigger numbers and with more passion than those who favor gun control.
“Voters tend to believe there’s a right to own guns, there’s a right to protection and there’s a concern about government restrictions,” said David Beattie, a Democratic pollster and consultant who has worked for Sink and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat.
“If there’s a choice between too much restriction or too little,” Beattie said, “there’s a sentiment favoring less restriction. Is it true with guns? Absolutely. It’s also true, though, when it comes to abortion.”
Generally speaking, Beattie said, there’s an “urban-rural divide” in Florida. Those who live in cities tend to view guns as a safety issue, while those in more rural and suburban areas “view it as a lifestyle issue and a personal freedom issue.”
Another top state Democratic consultant, Steve Schale, said he didn’t see guns as a major issue that would help Democrats.
In Florida, where there’s a near-even divide between Republican and Democratic ballots cast, independent voters usually decide elections.
And independents tend to support Stand Your Ground by double-digits, according to the poll from Viewpoint Florida, three surveys in 2012 and 2013 from Quinnipiac University and a Mason-Dixon poll conducted last year for The Miami Herald, Tampa Bay Times and other news partners.
Republican support for the law is strongest; Democrats have opposed the law or favor changing it the most.
When voters were asked in three Quinnipiac University polls if they support or oppose the law, their sentiment barely changed for months. Overall, they backed the law by an average of 56-36 percent.
The Mason-Dixon poll found voter support the highest in July 2012: 64 percent, with 16 percent wanting to modify the law and 18 percent favoring an all-out repeal.
The Viewpoint survey, released Monday, is the only public poll conducted in Florida after Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict.
“These numbers show Rick Scott is clearly in tune with voters on the Stand Your Ground issue,” said Randy Nielsen, a Republican consultant who helped conduct the Viewpoint Florida poll of 900 Florida voters.
Similar to a national poll released this week, the Viewpoint survey found Florida voters thought the Zimmerman acquittal was the right decision; 56 percent supported it and 38 percent opposed it.
As with support for Stand Your Ground, opposition to the verdict was strongest among Democrats and African-Americans. Support was strongest among non-Hispanic whites and Republicans.
Crist, once a darling of the NRA, has since drawn fire from the group after he switched parties and began favoring more support for what he calls “common-sense” gun control.
“Polls change,” Crist said, making an oblique referencing to his surprise defeat by Marco Rubio in the 2010 U.S. Senate race. “Polling is a snapshot. Attitudes change as more evidence is brought to bear. Sometimes things move. And sometimes they move fast.”
So far, though, public opinion has stood in place when it comes to Stand Your Ground.
“We haven’t seen a shift,” said Quinnipiac’s assistant polling director, Peter A. Brown. “Clearly, there’s solid support for Stand Your Ground in Florida.”