TALLAHASSEE — A Senate panel took the first step toward amending the "stand your ground" self-defense law Tuesday, approving a bill that would revamp neighborhood watch programs.
The proposal, sponsored by Sens. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, won bipartisan support on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It also received nods from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Sheriffs Association, the state public defenders association and the NAACP.
"We definitely support a bipartisan fix" to "stand your ground," NAACP general counsel Kim Keenan said.
Despite the early success in the Senate, it was too soon to tell if a similar proposal would win support in the lower chamber.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, the House point person on "stand your ground," has said he opposes any changes to change the law. And the revisions offered by Simmons and Smith were unlikely to change his mind, he said Tuesday.
"I don't think there's much in that bill," the Fort Walton Beach Republican said.
The 2005 "stand your ground" law removed a citizen's "duty to retreat" in most public confrontations. It sparked intense public debate in 2012, when Sanford neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager from Miami Gardens. Zimmerman was acquitted earlier this year.
The bill considered Tuesday — a combination of two separate proposals by Simmons and Smith — would require guidelines and training protocol for neighborhood watch programs.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said there was no debate "about whether or not there needs to be some standards."
There was, however, debate over who should establish the guidelines.
A proposed amendment suggested the Florida Department of Law Enforcement develop a standard training curriculum that would address, among other things, the unlawful use of force.
But FDLE attorney Michael Ramage said that approach did not make sense.
"Our concerns were, because of the variety of these programs from county to county, that it would be very difficult for FDLE to develop a standardized curriculum," Ramage said.
Instead, Ramage suggested the FDLE develop a set of "minimum expectations" and allow local sheriffs offices and police departments to carry out the guidelines locally.
Simmons and Smith said they would craft new language taking the suggestion into consideration.
There was also debate over language that would allow bystanders to sue if they were injured by a person standing his or her ground.
Explained Smith: "We're making it clear that if a third party is injured by your negligence, you are not immune from any suit."
But some senators, including Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, raised concerns that the language would open the door to more civil litigation. The gun-rights group Florida Carry also opposed the change.
The bill passed out of the committee by a 7-2 vote, with Thrasher and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, voting in opposition.
Some critics, including the young activists known as the Dream Defenders, said the bill did not go far enough to change the existing statute.
"We urge you to repeal 'stand your ground,' " Dream Defender Elijah Armstrong told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer said she was "lukewarm" on the proposal.
"We don't think it does a lot of good, but we don't think it does a lot of harm," she said.
Hammer, who helped shepherd the original "stand your ground" law through the political process, said she would likely attempt some fixes of her own.
"If this thing is going to move forward, I'm going to be working to put some good stuff in to protect the intent of the 2005 Legislature," she said, noting that the law denies immunity to people engaged in "unlawful activity" without defining the term.
After the vote, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee praised Simmons and Smith for working across party lines. Lee acknowledged the first "man crush" of the 2014 legislative session, drawing laughter from the audience.
Simmons and Smith said there was still work to be done on the bill, particularly with defining the term "aggressor." The law denies immunity to anyone who "initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself," but does not give a more specific definition.
Still, Smith said he hoped the vote would send "a strong signal" to the House, which has been sharply divided on the issue.
"This sends a message to the House that this is something we need to discuss and vote on in a bipartisan fashion," Smith said.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.