The Republican leaders of the Legislature don't want to change Florida's Stand Your Ground law. Polls show that a majority of voters agree. But that doesn't mean conservatives should stand back as lawmakers prepare for hearings on the self-defense law, Rep. Matt Gaetz told tea party activists Tuesday night.
During a 90-minute conference call, Gaetz said the tea party needed to show up in Tallahassee in big numbers to offset proponents of changing the law, who have vowed to do the same. Gaetz also listened to the callers' ideas about what else can be done leading up to the yet-to-be-scheduled hearings, such as circulating petitions and lobbying local elected officials.
House Speaker Will Weatherford called for the hearings after activists and Democrats said the issue needed more attention after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin. But he assigned the task of chairing the hearings to Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, head of the House's Criminal Justice Subcommittee and a vocal proponent of the law without "changing one damn comma."
Even though he doesn't think there should or will be changes to Stand Your Ground, Gaetz said the hearings will be beneficial.
"These hearings will give a great opportunity, I think, for the people of Florida to see what the Stand Your Ground law really does," he said. "Why it was enacted. Who it protects. Who it doesn't protect."
A general disdain for the Dream Defenders' 30-night sit-in at the Capitol to push for changes to Stand Your Ground after the Zimmerman trial was a common theme of the phone call. Gaetz defended the activists' right to protest but said he wasn't happy about the expense to the state and other things he heard.
He also claimed most of the activists, including those who planned to return for the hearings, were paid for their time and/or bused in from other states.
"Any group is allowed to support who they want, but here is what we gotta know that we're up against," Gaetz told the tea partiers on the call. "Just about all of the leadership of the Dream Defenders group is very open and up front about the fact that they were being paid to be there."
Dream Defenders executive director Phillip Agnew has been transparent about his $29,000 annual salary paid by labor union SEIU to run the organization. But he insists that the movement is largely student-led and the overwhelming majority of those who spent days and night in the Capitol were simply concerned citizens.
"To say that some union is masterminding us is an insult," Agnew said in July. "Give a little more credit to the youth of Florida."
Gaetz said he still doesn't know when the hearings will be held, but hinted that they will come in the form of public comment and debate on a bill during a committee meeting. The likely bill that will be put on the agenda is Tallahassee Democratic Rep. Alan William's proposed repeal of the law, HB 4003.
So far, the Senate has not agreed to hold similar hearings. Gaetz said his father, Senate President Don Gaetz, has indicated that may happen only if the House moves forward with any legislation. That makes it unlikely.
"If the House were to defeat legislation and then say that our work was concluded, then it would seem like sort of a waste of time for the Senate to pursue an initiative that had already died in the house," Matt Gaetz said.