The Debate Surrounding Stand Your Ground: A Look Forward And A Look Back

Aug 16, 2013

Just how much support is there really for Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” Law? Did the failure of a poll that could have triggered a special session lead to the Dream Defenders ending a month-long protest? We'll take a look at what led up to this point.

“I think their time has kind of run out,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Weatherford made those comments an hour before protestors at the Capitol announced they’d be leaving the Capitol, after a 31-day long sit-in in the Governor’s office. Since mid-July, the self-titled Dream Defenders have been demonstrating at the Capitol following the acquittal of George Zimmerman. He’s the neighborhood watch leader who claimed he killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in self-defense.

So, the demonstrators urged Governor Rick Scott to call a special session to review Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. While Scott met with them, he still refused their request, saying "I’m not going to call a special session. I believe in our self-defense laws in our state."

Special Session Poll

Going through Governor Scott is not the only way to get lawmakers to come to Tallahassee. The two presiding officers, the House Speaker and the Senate President, must jointly agree to call one as well, but they, like Scott, agreed not to call one. But, there’s still one more way, says Speaker Weatherford.

“It’s unprecedented. It’s in our constitution, and it has this provision where if the presiding officers or the Governor won’t call a special session, they can poll the members and basically ask them if they want a special session. And, so they had to get 20-percent of the House and Senate to ask for the vote, and they were able to get that. And, then we took a vote just the other day. And, it appears there are not enough votes in the body to have a special session,” Weatherford added.

By Wednesday, it was clear that the poll triggered by a group of Democratic lawmakers would not pan out in their favor. 96 lawmakers needed to say “yes,” but close to 90 of the 160-member Legislature had already said no.

Should there be a "Stand Your Ground" review?

House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston says the poll was inspired by the work of the Dream Defenders, and he adds this is not the end.

“I’m not deterred…not one bit. I think that we become even more vigilant in terms of making sure that those things that need to be reviewed are reviewed. This was just a poll of whether the Legislature thought we should have a special session. I don’t think there’s someone out there who thinks this law is perfect, and I would disagree with them. And, think it’s probably our obligation to review that laws that we passed,” said Thurston.

“It’s not something that the people universally want to see happen. That bears out in a lot of the polling that’s been done on ‘Stand Your Ground.’ The people of Florida want the right to stand their ground. The people of Florida don’t want to have a duty to retreat,” Representative Matt Gaetz countered.

Gaetz, a Shalimar Republican, head of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee and a vocal proponent of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. While House Speaker Will Weatherford did not call a special session, he did call for a hearing to look into the law. And, he tasked Gaetz with overseeing it.

But, several have criticized Gaetz for recent remarks he made that he would not change one comma on the law. Despite that, Gaetz says he’s still keeping an open mind, adding that he’s entitled to his own opinion.

“I have a viewpoint! I support the Stand Your Ground law as written. But, my role as the committee chairman is to ensure that we have a fair process. And, we’ll have a fair opportunity for everyone to make their case. I just happen to be of the view that Floridians should not have to turn their back and run when they’re attacked. And, it’s not just me. The Florida Sheriff’s Association, a group that is pretty focused on public safety, has unanimously endorsed Stand Your Ground without any recommended changes,” Gaetz added.

But, not all 67 Florida Sheriffs are on board, like Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. 57 Sheriffs unanimously voted at a recent conference. Israel, who had another engagement, did not attend the conference. But, he says if he had, he would not have held the other 57 Sheriffs position on the law.

“Stand Your ground allows you to stand your ground. I don’t think that part of it is correct. I believe that you should be obligated to get in your vehicle and leave the area and drive away and avoid that confrontation, if the threat isn’t immediate. So, that’s kind of where I differ with Stand Your Ground. Although I see a lot of it should stay, I think some parts of it, I’d like to see retracted or altered, and that’s why I would vote no on the entirety of Stand Your Ground,” said Israel.

Israel says he’d like to see something legislatively done this upcoming Legislative Session. And, whether or not that may happen is entirely up to the Republican-led Legislature.

The Dream Defenders look ahead

Meanwhile, the Dream Defenders, the group hoping to repeal the law, say their work is not done. With the Capitol now empty, the Dream Defenders’ Phillip Agnew says they have not yet accomplished all what they came to do.

But, he says they did have some great successes, including getting Scott to meet with them and getting Republican leadership to hold an upcoming Stand Your Ground hearing. Agnew even has an upcoming debate scheduled with Representative Matt Gaetz regarding the law.

“We had a whole lot of victories that really amounted to a really big move here politically, and now they’re talking about issues and discussing issues that they refused to talk about or even acknowledge before. So, we’re happy for that. And, overall, folks now understand what we stand for, for the most part, and that’s going to make it that much easier when we come back here September 23rd to talk about the issues we’re debating,” said Agnew.

The Dream Defenders are planning to come back to the Capitol when lawmakers hold committee meetings in September.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.