There is ample evidence that Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law is a menace to public safety and should be repealed. But the state's Republican leaders can't seem to see past the power of the National Rifle Association to do what is right. Now Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith is offering a long-shot bill to eliminate the worst elements of the law. Reasonable lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should give it a look.
Floridians can't count on the governor's office to take the lead on fixing a law that has absolved people in everything from gangland shootings to road rage incidents. Last month, Gov. Rick Scott's "stand your ground" task force urged no significant changes to the law. He convened the 19-member panel after the 2005 law jumped into the nation's consciousness with the death of Trayvon Martin, a teenager killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford. The law allows people to use lethal force to defend themselves, with no duty to retreat, if they reasonably believe their lives are in danger.
The incident illuminated some of the worst features of the law. Zimmerman invoked "stand your ground" even though he had been pursuing Martin. And Zimmerman wasn't arrested because the law demands that police not take a suspect into custody without probable cause that the force used was unlawful. He has since been charged with second-degree murder.
Smith's measure, SB 136, would address both concerns. It prohibits the defense by a person who provokes a violent confrontation or pursues someone running away. And it eliminates immunity from arrest or detention if there is a death that requires more investigation.
Smith's bill also directs the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to collect and report on all claims of justifiable use of force. After Martin's death, the Tampa Bay Times examined nearly 200 "stand your ground" incidents in an effort to analyze the law's impact. But because of a lack of reporting and record-keeping requirements, some cases were impossible to find. Policing agencies don't maintain accounts of cases not pursued. Only with better records can the law's full impact be assessed.
Smith had to work independently of the task force after the governor failed to appoint him to it and he was denied the opportunity to speak at its inaugural meeting. The task force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, was packed with supporters of the law, who proved to be uninterested in objections. The panel recommended few changes despite extensive emotional testimony from survivors whose relatives were killed by someone who invoked the defense.
"Stand your ground" was enacted at the urging of the NRA and has made the state more dangerous, with the rate of justifiable homicides spiking since its passage. Just this month, the law was cited to justify a shooting at a St. Petersburg pizza shop that endangered innocent bystanders. Smith's changes would improve the law, but Florida would be better off if the law went away entirely.