TALLAHASSEE — Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law continues to enjoy widespread support among likely voters, even as a state task force considers rewriting the law, according to a new Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll.
Nearly 65 percent say the 2005 law — which allows people who believe they are in grave danger to use deadly force to defend themselves — does not need to be changed. There's less consensus when it comes to voters' thoughts on the Trayvon Martin shooting, which thrust the law into the national spotlight this year.
Voters are essentially split about whether George Zimmerman — who faces second-degree murder charges for shooting Martin on Feb. 26 — was acting in self-defense when he pulled the trigger. Forty-four percent believe he was and 40 percent say he wasn't, while 16 percent are not sure. Major differences emerge when voters are separated by geography and race.
"The real divide on this is racial, which I think isn't terribly surprising given the racial tone that this (case) has taken," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, a nonpartisan, Jacksonville-based company that conducted the poll. The telephone survey of 800 registered Florida voters — all likely to vote in the November general election — was conducted July 9-11 and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Voters in South Florida and blacks are the most likely to say that stand your ground should be repealed or amended, and that Zimmerman, 28, was not justified in shooting Martin, 17.
Only 6 percent of black voters believe Zimmerman was acting in self-defense, while 82 percent said he was not, the poll found. Hispanics were the most likely to agree with Zimmerman's self-defense claim, with 52 percent saying he was justified, compared with 50 percent of whites. Hispanics were also the most likely to say they were not sure, with 25 percent undecided about the case. Zimmerman is Hispanic.
Zimmerman's fate will likely hinge on the law, which came under intense scrutiny after the Martin shooting, with many calling for its repeal. The 2005 law — which eliminates the so-called duty to retreat during a confrontation in a public place — remains popular in Florida, with only 18 percent saying it should be repealed.
Randy Gaskins, a 57-year-old firefighter and paramedic in Gainesville, is a big fan of the law, and has a concealed weapons permit.
"I love stand your ground," he said. "I don't want to turn tail and run. Now, I'm not going to look for trouble or anything, but if someone advances on you, you should be able to defend yourself."
Not everyone supports the law, and a state task force is currently reviewing it to see if changes should be recommended to the Legislature. Critics say that the law has allowed murderers to escape justice, and that it is not applied fairly to all races.
Debra Peoples of Tampa said her son, Chyvas, was convicted of manslaughter after killing a gang member who attacked him, and was not allowed to use "stand your ground" as a defense.
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"This law failed my son," Peoples, who is black, told members of the task force last week. "I implore you, to look at the disparity of how the 'stand your ground' law is applied."
Sixty-nine percent of black voters believe the law should be repealed or modified, compared to just 28 percent of white voters and 34 percent of Hispanics.
Margaret Kary, an 87-year-old from Penney Farms in north Florida, said she thinks the law should be repealed. Kary says getting her 61-year-old daughter to visit Florida has been difficult because of the state's gun-friendly culture.
"She's afraid to come to Florida," Kary said. "She thinks everyone has a gun in their pocket."
Times/Herald staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this story. Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ToluseO.