Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

'Stand your ground' is here to stay, but why not make it better?

We begin with two dead men in a Chili's parking lot.

It is late on a February evening in South Florida, and a petty argument inside the restaurant has turned into a tragedy just outside its front doors.

Nearly six years have passed, and the story has traveled from a local police department to an immunity hearing to a ruling from the 3rd District Court of Appeal last week and, before it is all over, could wind up in front of the state's Supreme Court.

It is not the facts of the case that are in dispute.

The problem is the interpretation of Chapter 776.032 of the Florida Statutes. You may know it better as the state's "stand your ground'' law.

All these protests, task forces and committee hearings later, there is still a fair amount of confusion in the judicial system regarding when and how to apply a statute that is entering its ninth year on the books. The law's language is broad, its intent has been misinterpreted, and its loopholes are many.

Or, to put it another way:

"I think everyone has found that it is an excellent common-sense law, but it's not perfect.''

Those were the words of state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who just happens to be the guy who drafted the original legislation in 2005.

Unlike some of his bumper-sticker-mentality colleagues, Simmons seems to understand nuance. He sees shades of gray. Mostly, he is willing to revisit his own work and words.

Simmons helped put our state at the forefront of the nation's "stand your ground'' phenomenon and now he may help Florida be among the first to consider modifications.

"If we're going to pass a law,'' Simmons told a Senate Judiciary committee in October, "we should always be prepared to further debate it, scrutinize it, change it if necessary.''

Just to be clear, Simmons is proud of his "stand your ground'' legislation. And there is no way that law is going to be repealed anytime soon, nor should it be based on polls.

But the state Senate does seem amenable to tweaking it in small, but significant, ways. For instance, the language could be clarified so that those who provoke confrontations will not be granted immunity. And law enforcement agencies will have a duty to conduct full investigations instead of feeling restricted by "stand your ground'' parameters.

The question is whether the simpletons in the state House will have the acumen and courage to consider changes proposed by the Senate in the coming legislative session.

Because, as we've come to discover, the law's only consistent feature is the remarkable inconsistency of its application.

The Chili's case — in which one man shot and killed two others after they seriously injured his friend with a sucker punch — is just the latest example of different judges wrestling with the vague concepts of fear and danger. And the ambiguity of "stand your ground'' is that your definition of victim can change from case to case.

So will the law ever be perfect?

Of course not.

But that doesn't mean we should abandon all attempts to fix it.

The Senate should continue pursuing meaningful changes, and the rest of us should make sure House members do not dismiss potential reform with their typical macho posturing.

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