TALLAHASSEE — A panel of Florida lawmakers on Thursday soundly rejected a proposal to repeal the ''stand your ground'' self-defense law, but enthusiastically approved a pitch to expand ''stand your ground'' immunity to people who fire a warning shot.
The votes took place at a hearing that lasted five hours before the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. Nearly 300 people attended, and scores signed up to give their opinion on the controversial law.
Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat, said his push to repeal ''stand your ground'' had "everything to do with making sure we keep our streets and our communities and our neighborhoods safe."
"We have had a number of cases that have shown us over and over that the law as adopted in 2005 isn't working," Williams said.
But a half-dozen lawmakers, some of whom weren't on the subcommittee, came to the defense of "stand your ground."
"Today, our state is a safer place and has the lowest crime rate in 42 years," said Rep. Marti Coley, a Marianna Republican. "Florida's 'stand your ground' law is solid. It's good and should not be changed."
Said Democratic Rep. Katie Edwards, of Plantation: "The people I represent, the people we represent, need not be required, or have imposed upon them, a duty to retreat. . . . I won't turn my back on responsible self-defense laws."
The committee shot down the repeal bill in a 2-11 vote.
The two supporters: Democratic Reps. Kionne McGhee of Miami and Randolph Bracy of Orlando.
The hearing followed a tempestuous summer which saw neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager from Miami.
Zimmerman did not claim a "stand your ground" defense, but language from the law was included in the jury instructions.
After the acquittal, a group of young activists known as the Dream Defenders held a 31-day protest outside Gov. Rick Scott's office to demand a special legislative session on the self-defense law. Scott refused to call lawmakers to Tallahassee, but House Speaker Will Weatherford agreed to a hearing on the law.
From the time it was filed, the repeal bill was a long shot in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Fort Walton Beach Republican tapped to lead the hearing, said he would not support changing "one damn comma" of the statute.
The repeal bill's chances diminished even further on Wednesday, when House Minority Leader Perry Thurston said he would prefer a bipartisan reform bill similar to one being considered in the Senate.
Still, scores of people traveled to Tallahassee to provide emotional and sometimes racially charged testimony.
The speakers included Lucia McBath, whose 17-year-old son Jordan Davis was gunned down following a 2012 dispute at a Jacksonville gas station.
"My grief is unbearable at times," said McBath, advocating for the repeal. "I'm here as a face of the countless victims of gun violence."
Arguments on the other side of the debate were just as impassioned.
"Florida sheriffs unequivocally support the right to 'stand your ground,' " Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley said, noting that people don't have time to ponder why an intruder is in their home.
The committee passed a separate bill ensuring people who fire a warning shot are not subject to the minimum mandatory sentencing law known as 10-20-Life.
Edwards and Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, filed the bill after Marissa Alexander of Jacksonville was sentenced to the mandatory 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her husband. Alexander tried to claim immunity under the "stand your ground" law, but was nonetheless found guilty.
The proposal by Combee and Edwards garnered 28 co-signers, and found support on both sides of the aisle.
The bill also won the support of Marion Hammer, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in Florida
"10-20-Life was never intended to be used against citizens who, in an act of self-defense, threatened the use of force to stop an attack," Hammer said.
The proposal passed by a 12-1 vote, with McGhee dissenting. Final passage into law will eventually be up to the Florida Legislature, which convenes in March for its annual 60-day session.
"To simply give a blanket cover to anyone simply because he or she raises the issue of 'stand your ground,' could be more problematic in the future than it is now," said McGhee, an attorney.
After the meeting, Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who helped write the "stand your ground" law, said the votes were a testament to the popularity of the statute.
"Eighty percent of Floridians still agree that we are safer because of this law," he said.
Williams said he would put his energy into amending "stand your ground."
"If we can't repeal, we must repair," he said.
Kathleen McGrory can be reached at [email protected]