TALLAHASSEE — State senators on Tuesday advanced proposed changes to the state’s “stand your ground” law, three months after crime-watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The Senate Judiciary committee voted 7-2 to pass a measure that includes training for neighborhood crime watch volunteers and clarifying that police can “fully and completely investigate” when force is used in self-defense.
The effort is a work in progress and other changes may include further honing of how to apportion fault when innocent bystanders are injured or killed during an act of self-defense.
The measure may get a chilly reception in the House, though.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who chairs the Criminal Justice subcommittee, has said he doesn’t intend to change “one damn comma” of the law. Gaetz could not be immediately reached.
“After what happened in Sanford, we wanted to send a message to community watches (about) what is responsible behavior,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale.
Smith sponsored the latest changes with Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who advanced the “stand your ground” law in 2005.
“This is a good, common sense clarification of the existing law,” Simmons said.
The law allows people who are attacked to counter deadly force with deadly force in self-defense without any requirement that they flee.
Zimmerman did not invoke the “stand your ground” law to seek a dismissal of the charges against him, but provisions from the law were used in the instructions given to jurors. Martin was not armed.
A citizen task force formed by Gov. Rick Scott looked at the law and affirmed it earlier this year. The task force also issued several recommendations, including asking lawmakers to address who’s responsible if innocent bystanders are hurt or killed.
“Although an individual may be granted civil immunity for their use of force during (an) incident, it is not clear whether that immunity would apply even when innocent third-party victims are injured or killed due directly to the actions of that individual,” the task force’s report said.
Activists on both sides of the issue were lukewarm on the proposed changes. Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association’s top lobbyist in Florida, said her group doesn’t oppose them but neither does it believe they solve any concerns.
“People view things differently and we end up with problems,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to clear the air.”
But Hammer, who backed the original law, made it clear she never intended “gangbangers having shootouts in the street” to have “stand your ground” protection.
Members of the group Dream Defenders continued to ask that “stand your ground” be repealed and that a duty to retreat be put back into law. The group organized this summer’s 31-day sit-in at the Capitol to protest the law.
Stacy Scott, the public defender for the state’s Eighth Judicial Circuit in north-central Florida, told lawmakers the current law isn’t necessarily flawed but said every self-defense case is unique.
“It’s impossible to legislate good judgment,” Scott said.
Any changes in the law require a vote of the full Legislature, which returns March 4 for the 2014 lawmaking session.