Gov. Rick Scott strong on 'stand your ground,' backed by public opinion in Florida

Gov. Rick Scott has turned down calls for a special session to modify the 2005 law.
Gov. Rick Scott has turned down calls for a special session to modify the 2005 law.
Published July 29, 2013

Gov. Rick Scott doesn't want to change Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law, and public opinion polls and even Democrats indicate the Republican might be on safe political ground.

The self-defense law became central to the nation's political debate over guns after a jury in Sanford found George Zimmerman not guilty in last year's shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old from Miami Gardens.

But the exact role of the law in the verdict is unclear, and a new poll released last week showed 50 percent of Floridians support keeping the law intact, 31 percent want it changed and only 13 percent want a full repeal.

Though the poll was conducted by a Republican-led firm, Viewpoint Florida, the findings jibe with other nonpartisan Florida surveys that have shown even greater support for the self-defense law, which gives a person more rights to use deadly force without having to retreat first in a confrontation.

The three Democrats who have the best shot at facing Scott in next year's election say the law should be modified — not repealed — but they aren't making "stand your ground" a top issue, either.

"I don't think it's the litmus test for the election," said former state Sen. Nan Rich, the only major announced candidate. "There should be a discussion about it."

Rich, who met Saturday with the group protesting the law in Tallahassee, voted for "stand your ground" in 2005 when it passed the Legislature.

Since that time, she said, she has seen the need to modify it because numerous cases across the state have seen the law applied unevenly, even allowing what look like hardened criminals to go free in some cases.

Scott, however, said the law doesn't need to be changed.

"What we ought to be doing is mourning the loss of a young man," he said last week. "We ought to be praying about how we bring our state back together. We ought to be praying for unity."

Scott said he wouldn't call for a special lawmaking session, as demanded by the Dream Defenders, the group protesting at the Capitol in Tallahassee.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Democrat who is leaning toward running against Scott, said he would be inclined to call for a special session to modify the law but acknowledged that resistance in the Republican-led House and Senate would make that close to impossible.

"There is a need for change," Crist said.

He was Florida's Republican attorney general when the law passed and supported it at the time.

And former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat who's also considering a run for governor, shares Crist's view about the need to clarify the law. She and Crist describe themselves the same way when it comes to guns.

"I'm pro-Second Amendment," Sink said. "That doesn't mean I'm against common-sense reforms."

Democratic and Republican consultants say there are good reasons for Democrats to not zealously advocate for scaling back "stand your ground": Florida — a state with more than 1.1 million concealed-weapon permit holders — has a strong gun culture.

And gun-rights supporters, led by the National Rifle Association, tend to vote their issue in bigger numbers than those who favor gun control.

"Voters tend to believe there's a right to own guns, there's a right to protection, and there's a concern about government restrictions," said David Beattie, a Democratic pollster and consultant who has worked for Sink and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida's only statewide elected Democrat.

"If there's a choice between too much restriction or too little," Beattie said, "there's a sentiment favoring less restriction. Is it true with guns? Absolutely. It's also true, though, when it comes to abortion."

Generally speaking, Beattie said, there's an "urban-rural divide" in Florida. Those who live in cities tend to view guns as a safety issue, while those in more rural and suburban areas "view it as a lifestyle issue and a personal freedom issue."

Steve Schale, another top state Democratic consultant, said he didn't see guns as a major issue that would help Democrats.

In Florida, where there's a near-even divide between Republican and Democratic ballots cast, independent voters usually decide elections.

And independents tend to support "stand your ground" by double-digits, according to the poll from Viewpoint Florida and three surveys in 2012 and 2013 from Quinnipiac University.

Republican support for the law is strongest; Democrats have opposed the law or favored changing it the most.

When voters were asked in the three Quinnipiac polls if they support or oppose the law, their sentiment barely changed for months. Overall, they backed the law by an average of 56 percent to 36 percent.

"These numbers show Rick Scott is clearly in tune with voters on the stand your ground issue," said Randy Nielsen, a Republican consultant who helped conduct the Viewpoint Florida poll of 900 Florida voters.

The Viewpoint survey is the only public poll conducted in Florida after Zimmerman's acquittal.

Similar to a national poll, the Viewpoint survey found Florida voters thought the Zimmerman acquittal was the right decision; 56 percent supported it and 38 percent opposed it.

Crist, once a darling of the NRA, has since drawn fire from the group after he switched parties and began favoring what he calls "common sense" gun control.

"Polls change," Crist said. "Polling is a snapshot. Attitudes change as more evidence is brought to bear. Sometimes things move. And sometimes they move fast."

So far, though, public opinion has stood in place when it comes to "stand your ground."

"We haven't seen a shift," said Peter A. Brown, Quinnipiac's assistant polling director. "Clearly, there's solid support for stand your ground in Florida."