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House Panel Votes Down Revision to ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law

A push to alter Florida’s contentious ‘stand your ground’ law may be dead for the coming year, despite the high-profile support of several Republican legislators and gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association.

A Florida House panel on Tuesday narrowly voted down a proposal to change the existing law and require prosecutors to prove a person on trial using the ‘stand your ground’ defense was not in fact acting in self-defense.

The vote came even though the NRA and Florida’s public defenders testified for the need for the change. Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican and sponsor of the state’s existing law, said he sponsored the bill to respond to recent court rulings.

“Folks, you are talking about a basic tenet of American justice,” said Baxley. “This is the difference in being here and in Russia. You are innocent until proven guilty ... We would rather allow a guilty person go free than convict an innocent one.”

The defeat of the bill is a rare setback for the NRA, which has been able to win support for several gun bills in the last decade. But Baxley’s proposal was opposed by the state’s prosecutors.

Two Republicans sided with Democrats on the House Criminal Justice subcommittee to vote down the bill in a tie. A similar measure is still pending in the Florida Senate, but the no vote makes passage unlikely during the 2016 session that formally starts in January.

Florida’s current ‘stand your ground’ law allows the use of deadly force if someone believes their life is in jeopardy.

The trial of George Zimmerman two years ago renewed scrutiny of the self-defense law that was first passed in 2005. Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin after claiming self-defense.

While ‘stand your ground’ was not directly mentioned in the trial, the law was included in the jury instructions.

Republicans have voted down previous efforts to tinker with the law, but Baxley's bill (HB 169) was sparked by a May ruling from the Florida Supreme Court.

The court ruled against Jared Bretherick, an Indiana tourist who had made a ‘stand your ground’ claim in a 2011 road confrontation in Kissimmee in which he pointed a gun at a driver.

Bretherick’s lawyers contended the Legislature never spelled out which side had the burden of proof at the pretrial immunity hearing. But the high court said shifting the burden could effectively force prosecutors to prove a case twice.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, the chairman of the subcommittee and a former prosecutor, said he supported ‘stand your ground’ but that he could not go along with the bill. He said that the change would make it difficult to prosecute someone, especially if the other person was killed and there were no other witnesses.

“It’s your defense,” said Trujillo. “If you are alleging something, you have to prove it.”