Sunday, April 22, 2018
Politics

'Stand Your Ground' panel suggests few changes to Florida's self-defense law

TALLAHASSEE — Created in the wake of national uproar over Trayvon Martin's shooting death, a 19-member task force spent six months traveling the state and taking public testimony about Florida's most controversial self-defense law.

The result? Little, if anything, will change.

The task force commissioned by Gov. Rick Scott to review the "stand your ground" law prepared its final report Tuesday, indicating that the law is mostly fine as it is.

In a report to the Legislature, the group offered up only minor tweaks to the law — including changes that could actually make it easier to claim self-defense after killing someone.

"We reaffirm the validity of the legislation that was enacted in 2005 and the importance of the ability of a truly innocent victim to be able to stand his or her ground" if they are attacked, said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who helped draft the law.

The report sparked immediate criticism from gun control advocates and some lawmakers.

"I didn't expect anything. I really truly didn't expect anything," said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens. "It was a Republican-dominated commission, and it was full of people who supported 'stand your ground' to begin with."

Ultimately, the task force's final report asks the Legislature, the courts system and the law enforcement community to review the law further to make sure it is applied equally and fairly.

The Citizen Safety and Protection Task Force was commissioned by Gov. Rick Scott in April after Martin, a 17-year-old teenager from Miami Gardens, was shot dead by a Sanford neighborhood watch volunteer. Citing the "stand your ground" law, police originally declined to charge the shooter, George Zimmerman, sparking nationwide protests. Zimmerman was eventually arrested and is awaiting trial on second-degree murder charges.

Enacted in 2005 and backed by the National Rifle Association, the "stand your ground" law grants legal immunity to people who use deadly force if they reasonably believe their life is in danger.

Two dozen states have passed similar laws since 2005, and several studies show that so-called "justifiable homicides" have increased significantly in the places that have enacted "stand your ground" laws. Reports have also shown that the law has had disparate impacts on racial minorities, and many of the people who have successfully used it are felons.

Those studies were not incorporated into the task force's final recommendations, though the group urged the Legislature to fund a Florida-based study.

"They systematically decided not to review those studies," said Ginny Simmons, executive director of the Second Chance on Shoot First campaign backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "We presented them in September, we've mailed them to the task force, we printed them out and presented them again today."

The task force held seven public meetings in different parts of the state to hear recommendations from experts and members of the public. Floridians who spoke during the meetings were often emotional about the law, with many speaking of loved ones who had been killed by people who later successfully claimed self-defense.

More than 10,000 people wrote letters and emails to the task force, either defending the law or condemning it.

Tabbatha Nussbaummer, a Pensacola woman who shot and killed an attacker last year, said the law was necessary, though it has been misapplied at times.

"I was not thinking about the 'stand your ground' law. I was thinking about protecting myself and my family," she said at Tuesday's meeting.

In the end, the task force made a few minor recommendations, opting to leave much of the heavy-lifting to the Legislature and the courts.

The task force recommended that the Legislature look more closely at the language determining who could claim self-defense under the law.

It also recommended changing the law to discourage neighborhood watch volunteers from engaging in vigilantism.

It asked the Legislature and the law enforcement community to spend more time clarifying what the law means for police.

Katherine Fernandez-Rundle, Miami-Dade state attorney, proposed several significant changes to restrict the law, but they were mostly rejected by the other task force members.

From the outset, critics charged that the task force would not propose significant changes to the law, because of its make-up. Two lawmakers who helped draft the law had seats on the task force, along with two others who voted for it in 2005. Another lawmaker appointed to the panel was the chief sponsor of an NRA-backed law prohibiting doctors from asking patients about guns.

Several lawmakers who have proposed gun control legislation in the past say they were denied the opportunity to serve on the task force.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, offered the group several recommendations from a task force he had commissioned in April. Most of the recommendations from Smith, the incoming minority leader, were not adopted by the state's task force.

"I don't think any task force full of people who support the ("stand your ground") bill are going to say anything other than 'It's a wonderful bill,' " said Braynon. "I think it's really going to take an uprising by the people of Florida."

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