Hear the bills
By Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith
“Why do they fear this debate?” That’s the question I’ve been asking ever since legislation I sponsored earlier this year amending the deeply flawed Stand Your Ground law was bottlenecked by the Republican leadership in the legislature.
The “not guilty” verdict a Sanford jury delivered in the murder trial of George Zimmerman shocked many. Me? Not as much. The ability of an individual to deliver a fatal shot in a heated confrontation and – unless there is a witness to the contrary – walk away without so much as a backward glance was the sad but expected outcome I predicted unless Stand Your Ground was changed. Trayvon Martin became the face of that future I feared.
The legislation rejected this session did not take away the basic principles inherent in self defense. It did not attack second amendment rights. It did not remove someone’s ability to respond with deadly force if that deadly force is warranted.
What it did do is remove the parts of Stand Your Ground fuzzily written, and thoroughly confusing, so much so that law enforcement is unclear when to arrest, and prosecutors are unclear when to charge.
Under the bill I filed this year, and which I have re-filed for the 2014 legislative session, Stand Your Ground would be amended so that immunity from arrest and prosecution are removed once the aggressor starts the confrontation. In other words, the bill would stop the ability to hide behind total immunity when you bring yourself to a fight.
The legislation also includes several other important provisions, a number of them recommended by the independent task force I convened last year to critically examine Stand Your Ground and its shortcomings. It also includes recommendations made by members of the governor’s own task force, as well as provisions in a bill sponsored by a Republican colleague which similarly languished in the 2013 legislative session.
Here are some of the things the bill does:
?It specifies that immunity is not available to aggressors;
?It specifies that immunity provisions do not restrict law enforcement agencies’ right and duty to fully and completely investigate use of force cases when a person claims immunity/self-defense;
?It provides less confusing language for adopting jury instructions: justifiable use of deadly force is allowed only when a threat is imminent, and when a person cannot safely avoid the danger before resorting to the use of deadly force;
?And it requires sheriffs and police to issue guidelines for neighborhood watch programs which would prohibit neighborhood watch participants from pursuing and confronting suspects.
Rather than encouraging people to shoot their way out of situations, this legislation returns Florida to the basic premise of a civilized society, and goes a long way to ending this “culture of violence” that has infiltrated everything from our schools to our sidewalks.
It deserves a hearing. That’s why I’m encouraging Floridians, and anyone who has a loved one living in, passing through, or going to school in this state to urge the legislative leadership through letters, emails, and Twitter to #HearTheBills.
The growing groundswell of support for changes to Stand Your Ground is unmistakable: Christian and Jewish congregations, law enforcement, state prosecutors, students, every day Floridians from every walk of life and every color, and even gun owners, all support the changes I’ve proposed. They understand that the bipartisan fixes will actually return Stand Your Ground to the purpose for which it was originally intended, namely improving public safety.
The legislature needs to step up to the plate and listen to these voices. Until that debate begins, no one is truly safe, and everyone is fair game.
Senator Chris Smith, of Ft. Lauderdale, is the Senate Democratic Leader for the 2012-2014 legislative terms.