TALLAHASSEE — Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford announced Friday that he will order hearings this fall on the state's "stand your ground" law, a victory for the young protesters known as the Dream Defenders who have spent the past two weeks protesting at the Capitol.
"It's a critical first step," said Phillip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders. "We've been here for three weeks. We know democracy takes time. Progress takes time."
They shouldn't celebrate too hard. Weatherford assigned the task of chairing the hearings to a staunch supporter of the law, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.
"I don't support changing one damn comma of the 'stand your ground' law," Gaetz said Friday. "It would be reactionary and dangerous to make Floridians less safe to pacify uninformed protesters."
Gaetz, the 31-year-old son of Senate President Don Gaetz, talks tough on crime. He passed a bill this year that expedited death row cases and has been known for pushing conservative causes popular in his Panhandle district. He expects the hearings to draw national attention, and he says he's ready for the debate.
"I want to have hearings; it's a good idea," Gaetz said. "Right now, the only voices on 'stand your ground' are coming from the radical left. I want an opportunity to give a full-throated defense of the law."
He said he's not sure when he'll hold the hearings, how long they'll last or how they'll be structured.
But he said his bias shouldn't deter those holding out hope that hearings can lead to changes in the law.
"Bills I don't support occasionally pass my committee," he said.
Weatherford agreed to the hearings in an op-ed published Friday. "Our evaluation of its effectiveness should be guided by objective information, not by political expediency," he wrote. "Does the law keep the innocent safer? Is it being applied fairly? Are there ways we can make this law clearer and more understandable?"
The announcement falls short of what the Dream Defenders want — a special session of the Legislature. But it's the biggest commitment to date by Republican leaders to review the controversial law. Some have blamed "stand your ground" for the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Gov. Rick Scott has refused to ask for a special session, as have Weatherford and Senate President Gaetz. Meanwhile, Democrats are writing letters trying to trigger a poll of the Legislature on whether to hold the special session. It's considered a long shot — 96 lawmakers need to request the session.
Agnew said he wanted to know more about the hearings, but he said he was cautiously optimistic. Already, his group has been recording testimony from experts and those affected by "stand your ground" laws during meetings in Scott's office. That testimony will be presented during the hearings, Agnew said. Except for a 30-minute meeting held last month, Scott hasn't met with the group.
"The hearings will be an opportunity for people to discuss the laws," Agnew said. "We will hope for the best and prepare for the worst."