In an op-ed published Friday, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford agreed to hold hearings this fall on the state's "stand your ground" law.
"Our evaluation of its effectiveness should be guided by objective information, not by political expediency," Weatherford said. "Does the law keep the innocent safer? Is it being applied fairly? Are there ways we can make this law clearer and more understandable."
Although the announcement falls short of holding a special legislative session that could repeal or change the stand your ground law, it's the biggest commitment to date by Republican leaders to review the controversial law that's been blamed by some in the Trayvon Martin case. Gov. Rick Scott has refused to ask for a special session, as have Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz. Meanwhile, Democrats are writing letters to the Secretary of State to trigger a poll of the Legislature on whether to hold the special session. It's considered a longshot with 96 lawmakers needed to ask for the session.
But Weatherford's announcement of a hearing accomplishes a top goal by the Dream Defenders, a group of activists who are entering their fourth week in holding a sit-in at the Capitol. Members of the group welcomed the news Friday of hearings because they said it will continue to shine a national spotlight on their cause.
"It's a critical first step," said Phillip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders. "We've been here for three weeks. We know Democracy takes time. Progress takes time. It's a really critical first step on our journey to get racial profiling, school to prison pipeline and stand your ground handled and for our lawmakers to do the right thing."
Agnew said he would await further details about how the hearings are organized, but he said he was cautiously optimistic. Already, his group has been recording testimony from experts and those affected by stand your ground laws during meetings in Scott's office that Agnew said he'll present during the hearings. Except for a 30-minute meeting held last month, Scott hasn't met with the group.
The Dream Defenders won't get a warm reception from the chair of the hearings. Weatherford assigned the task of holding the hearings to one of the House's best orators, Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, the chair of the House's Criminal Justice subcommittee. Gaetz, who passed a bill this session that expedited death row cases, is no apologist for stand your ground.
"I don't support changing one damn comma of the stand your ground law," Gaetz said Friday. "It would be reactionary and dangerous to make Floridians less safe to pacify uninformed protesters."
Gaetz said Weatherford told him this week that he would ask for the hearing.
"I want to have hearings, it's a good idea," Gaetz said. "Right now, the only voices on stand your ground are coming from the radical left. I want an opportunity to give a full-throated defense of the law."
He said he's not sure when he'll hold the hearings, how long they'll last, or how they'll be structured.
Gaetz said his bias didn't necessarily mean no changes will be made to the law.
"Bills I don't support occasionally pass my committee," he said.