A bipartisan bill that would tweak the controversial "stand your ground" self-defense law sailed through the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Monday, passing unanimously with the backing of both the National Rifle Association and Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown.
The measure (SB 130) by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, would make several changes recommended in 2012 by Gov. Rick Scott's Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection, which Scott appointed amid a national uproar that followed the shooting death of teen Trayvon Martin.
When six weeks went by without charges being filed against Sanford neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, the acknowledged shooter, protests spread across the country.
Many of the "stand your ground" law's original backers said it was never intended to protect the aggressor in a deadly confrontation, and on Monday, the Senate panel spelled that out.
The bill represents the first significant compromise since Zimmerman was acquitted last year of second-degree murder charges in Martin's death. Just a week ago, Brown helped civil-rights activist Al Sharpton lead 1,000 people to the Capitol to protest "stand your ground"' and to declare Florida "ground zero" in the fight to fix or repeal it.
"It's incumbent upon this committee, it's incumbent upon this Legislature, to say something about the law this year," said Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who also marched last week.
"People on this committee and those that were here to vote for (the original law) … are constantly saying, 'It's not what we intended, It's not what we intended, It's not what we intended.' Well, we have about 50 days now to say what we intended," Smith said.
Smith and Simmons, who helped pass the 2005 bill that became “stand your ground,” addressed the committee together. Simmons' measure includes a bill by Smith (SB 122) that was folded into it last fall.
The bill would clarify that a law enforcement agency must fully investigate whether a person claiming self-defense has lawfully used force. It also would no longer preclude lawsuits from third parties who are injured by negligent conduct used in self-defense.
The measure would also require the Department of Law Enforcement to develop a training curriculum for participants in neighborhood crime-watch programs and require local law-enforcement agencies to apply the curriculum when training program participants.
Several members of the Scott task force were on hand to support the bill, including NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer, the Rev. R.B. Holmes, who co-chaired the task force, and Stacy Scott, who represented the Florida Public Defender Association.
Stacy Scott said the bill would also clarify the roles of law enforcement officers and neighborhood-watch volunteers. She said it also would clarify the role of immunity hearings that are used to determine if someone can invoke "stand your ground" in self-defense.
" 'Stand your ground' is not to be used for vigilantism, for revenge or as an excuse to confront people," she said.
Brown brought her congressional colleague, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, who told lawmakers that homicide has gone up in states with "stand your ground" laws.
The House companion to Simmons' bill hasn't moved forward, although it was filed in August.
Smith said he'd spoken with House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, who was the House sponsor of "stand your ground" in 2005, and that the House is waiting for the Senate to act before making its own move.
"You cannot fix everything the first time," Hammer said. "When you try to do too much is when you create problems. We're taking it one step at a time. … And if we didn't get it right, we'll fix it. But we're comfortable with what we have today."