1. Opinion

Editorial: Deck stacked against 'stand your ground' reform

George Zimmerman, center, arrives with his lead counsel, Mark O’Mara, for a hearing in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Florida, Tuesday, February 5, 2013
George Zimmerman, center, arrives with his lead counsel, Mark O’Mara, for a hearing in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Florida, Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Published Feb. 25, 2013

One year ago tonight, an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a Hispanic neighborhood watch captain. Trayvon Martin's death and the explanations by watch captain George Zimmerman sparked a national debate about guns and self-defense that is far from over. Zimmerman is awaiting trial, and today there will be a "Million Hoodie March" in New York and a candlelight vigil in Sanford. Yet the Florida Legislature remains in denial about gun violence and the disastrous impact of the "stand your ground" law.

It comes as no surprise that a task force appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to review the 2005 law following Martin's shooting death has provided state lawmakers with the cover to do nothing. The task force's final report issued Friday recommends no significant changes to a law that should be repealed, not fine-tuned. With the task force dominated by the bill's sponsors and other supporters, the chances of an honest assessment were slim and none.

The Zimmerman case alone should have be enough for legislators to consider repealing the law, which allows the use of lethal force with no duty to retreat if a person reasonably believes his or her life is in danger. Zimmerman invoked the "stand your ground" law even though he pursued Martin, and he wasn't arrested because the law prevents police from taking a suspect into custody without probable cause that the force used was unlawful. Only after a special prosecutor was appointed was Zimmerman charged with second-degree murder. Now Zimmerman's new lawyer claims his client acted in self-defense and is not relying on "stand your ground'' to defend him.

If the Zimmerman case is not enough, how about this: A Tampa Bay Times investigation last year documented nearly 200 "stand your ground'' cases. It found cases in which drug dealers invoked the law to avoid murder charges, gang members went free and violent aggressors successfully claimed self-defense. The Times found nearly 70 percent of those who invoked the "stand your ground" defense went free, and defendants claiming the defense are more likely to prevail if the victim is black.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the law's negative impact, the task force found very little to change. It concluded people have the right to defend themselves with "proportional force" without acknowledging that most "stand your ground'' cases don't meet that standard. It recommends lawmakers clarify the meaning of "unlawful activity" that would bar defendants from claiming the defense, without recognizing how people in gang shootings and drug deals have used it to go free. Instead, the task force veered off into side issues such as suggesting lawmakers consider tightening standards for neighborhood watch groups.

Neither Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, nor House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, are interested in repealing ''stand your ground" or making significant changes. If the Legislature won't repeal the law, the least it can do is give a serious look to Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith's legislation to correct some the law's worst flaws.

It has been a year since George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin and changed the national debate over gun violence. In the state capital where the National Rifle Association and its allies have the final say, nothing has changed at all.