Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford cannot defend the "stand your ground" law on its merits, so he's stacking the deck. Weatherford has ordered hearings on the law, which would be a positive development if he had not appointed an unabashed supporter of the law to chair the meetings. The last thing this state needs is another sham hearing with a predetermined outcome.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, will chair the hearings and already says he opposes "changing one damn comma of the 'stand your ground' law.'' This is a political charade masquerading as a legitimate legislative inquiry where all views should be represented. If the intent is only to defend the law, then drop the pretense and NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer can hold hearings at Republican Party headquarters.
Weatherford's hearings are a political response to the protesters who have been camped in the Capitol for more than two weeks and want the "stand your ground" law repealed. The protests began after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, and they are drawing national attention. Gaetz calls the critics of the law "the radical left,'' but there is plenty of objective evidence the law has had deadly consequences that its supporters in the Legislature did not anticipate.
A Tampa Bay Times investigation last year reviewed about 200 cases involving the 2005 "stand your ground" law, which allows the use of lethal force and eliminates the duty to retreat if a person reasonably believes his or her life is in danger. In about one-third of the cases, the defendant started the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued the victim but still went free. The victim was unarmed in more than half of the cases where the killer went free. Drug dealers, gang members and other criminals have successfully used the law to avoid being convicted for killing someone.
Despite overwhelming evidence that the law is fatally flawed, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature continue to defend it. A task force appointed by the governor and stacked with the law's supporters recommended only modest changes last year. The Legislature had an opportunity this spring to be proactive before the Zimmerman trial, but even those slight changes failed to come before the full House and Senate.
Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, may have felt his hands were tied in appointing Gaetz to run the hearings because Gaetz chairs the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. But the least the speaker can do is tell Gaetz to choose between advocating for the law and running the hearings — and appoint a more open-minded co-chair. Instead of holding more one-sided hearings, the Legislature should be holding a special session to repeal a bad law that has damaged Florida's image, endangered its residents and cannot be fixed.