Florida House of Representatives Speaker Will Weatherfold (R) announced on Friday that Florida legislators will hold hearings in the fall concerning the state’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law, which allows people to use deadly force in self-defense when they believe their life is at risk.
The announcement comes nearly a month after a not-guilty verdict was reached in the George Zimmerman trial. Two jurors stated that because of the Stand Your Ground law, they had no choice but to acquit Zimmerman, who fatally shot unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin.
After the acquittal, Martin’s parents were joined by civic leaders, students, and political figures — including President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder — in urging Florida to review the law.
“Across Florida, representatives are receiving calls, letters, visits and emails from constituents with diverse opinions on ‘Stand Your Ground,’” Weatherfold said in his announcement.
He also asked: “Does the law keep the innocent safer? Is it being applied fairly? Are there ways we can make this law clearer and more understandable?”
These are the same questions being asked across Florida and the nation by those who fear that the law only protects a few privileged groups of people.
Critics argue that the law is not applied fairly across the board, and also allows anyone who deems another person threatening – even if only because of race or gender – to use lethal force against that person.
Race also plays a significant role in how a person is prosecuted in the context of the law.
A national Quinnipiac University poll released on Friday found that most voters support the Stand Your Ground laws, but that gender, race, and ideology divide Americans on the question of whether to retreat or use deadly force in self-defense. The poll also found that a majority of white voters and men support the laws, black voters generally oppose them, and women are more evenly divided.
Just a year ago, Representative Dennis Baxley (R-FL) told MSNBC that since the Stand Your Ground law went into effect in 2005, Florida has seen a drop in violent crime. In an interview with PBS Newshour, Baxley added that he thought the law “has saved thousands of people’s lives.”
Crime rates in Florida had been declining years before Stand Your Ground took effect, however, and there is no way to prove the law is the reason behind the decline.
Others contend that “justifiable” deaths have actually increased since Stand Your Ground was implemented. Economist Mouhcine Guettabi, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, conducted a study by taking data from the 29 states that do not have “stand your ground” laws, and “weighted key factors like personal income, population density, percentages of white, black, Hispanic and Asian residents, and the crime rate.”
At the end of his study, Guettabi found that he could attribute 158 more deaths per year since the passage of Stand Your Ground in Florida; that number dropped to 144 when excluding the 14 accidental gun deaths.
Guettabi concluded that “crime rates did not go up or down after the law was added,” but “gun deaths were higher than they would have been without ‘stand your ground.’”
Former Florida Senator Les Miller has now come forward to say that he regrets voting in favor of the law and added: “It was a bad bill.”
In July, protesters met with Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) to discuss the law. Once the meeting was over, Scott told the protesters that he supported the bill and would not call a special session. Instead, Scott called for a day of prayer that following Sunday. Scott went on to urge protesters and critics of the law to call their local legislators and provide examples of why they believe the law has the potential to result in more violence.
Chairman of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee Matt Gaetz (R) responded to Weatherford’s announcement by firmly stating, “I don’t intend to move one damn comma on the ‘stand your ground’ law. I’m fully supportive of the law as it’s written.”
Additionally, Gaetz claimed “any aberrational circumstances that have resulted are due to errors at the trial court level.”
Senate President Don Gaetz (R), the chairman’s father, has also maintained his support for the law.
Still, protesters are optimistic about the hearings.
Philip Agnew, head of demonstration group Dream Defenders, said, “It’s a critical step. We’re excited about having an open debate.”
Weatherford has not yet set a formal date for the hearings or stated how long they are expected to last.