In their first major legislative move since protesters took over the state house demanding the repeal of the “stand your ground” law, Florida lawmakers moved forward with a plan to expand the law Thursday while rejecting a measure to repeal it entirely.
During a five-hour hearing, the Florida House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice voted 12-1 to advance a bill that would expand the scope of the law by allowing someone to brandish or discharge that weapon “in defense of life, home, & property” and voted down a Democrat-backed measure to repeal the law entirely 11 to 2.
The repeal measure was subject to a lengthy public discussion, including testimony from members of the Dream Defenders, the protest group that took over the Florida Capitol in August after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. While Zimmerman never claimed “stand your ground” in his defense, it became a hotly debated issue, and the acquittal ultimately prompted the Dream Defenders month-long sit-in.
One of the groups leaders, Philip Agnew, vowed to not forget those who voted against the repeal.
“We will remember those who chose an aggressive approach to the cancer that afflicts our state, and those that chose to keep the money in their pockets,” he said.
Many high school students spoke out in favor of the repeal bill, with young black men explaining that they felt it put their lives in danger. Dale Landry of the Tallahassee NAACP argued that while the intention behind the law might have been grounded in safety, in practice the law was “grounded in prejudice.” He also noted that those who kill black people have a higher success rate with the “stand your ground” defense than those who kill whites.
Lucile McBath and Ron Davis, parents of slain teen Jordan Davis, joined those supporting the repeal, saying the “stand your ground” law empowered Michael Dunn to kill their son, who was shot while sitting in the back of a parked car last year. Dunn’s attorney has not yet announced whether he will try to invoke “stand your ground” immunity in his trial.
“I am here as a face of the countless victims of gun violence,” McBath said. “I am here to fight for common sense gun safety legislation that protects the lives of all citizens.”
The repeal bill’s sponsor, House Democratic Whip Alan Williams, argued against the law. He said that since its passage in 2005, cases of justifiable homicide rose 200%.
Repeal opponents focused primarily on the importance of the right to defend oneself against an attacker.
“Stand your ground is core to the American way of life,” Republican State Rep. Jimmie T. Smith said.
State Rep. Matt Gaetz, who oversaw the hearing, has been one of the strongest supporters of the law. “I don’t support changing one damn comma of the stand your ground law,” Gaetz said in August.
At Thursday’s hearing he contended that “stand your ground” has not had an adverse impact on African-Americans, saying there have been no cases of white supremacists using the law as a defense, and that black-on-black crime was a more important civil rights issue.
Members of the Dream Defenders taunted Gaetz for his “comma” comment during the hearing, repeatedly tweeting commas at him.
After the bill failed, they vowed to continue the fight.
During discussion of the bill to expand the scope of “stand your ground,” supporters argued that it would help to protect people like Marissa Alexander from injustice. Alexander, who has recently had her conviction overturned and is facing retrial, had been serving a mandatory 20 year sentence after firing what she described as a warning shot at her abusive husband.
The bill explicitedly allows for the “defensive display” of a firearm as a justification for immunity when defending life, home, or property. Supporters said that would help prevent judges from abusing the 10-20-life mandatory minimum law to punish people who brandished their weapon or threatened force with a firearm.
One of the bill’s opponents, Democratic state Rep. Kionne McGhee, argued it was dangerous to tie the much-maligned mandatory minimum 10-20-life law to “stand your ground.”
“There are other ways we can answer these questions,” he said, pushing instead for a bill to change the 10-20-life law, rather than “stand your ground.”
“Speaking as a former prosecutor, I can tell you this is not the answer,” he said.