Will Weatherford, the Republican speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives, revealed on Friday that the state’s legislature will hold hearings on its infamous “Stand Your Ground” laws sometime this fall. While the announcement came buried in one sentence of a defensive opinion piece published this past Thursday in the Tampa Tribune, Reuters nonetheless characterized it as “the biggest concession yet by the state’s Republican leaders to protesters’ demands for a top-to-bottom review of the law.”
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law came in for widespread public criticism after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman on murder and manslaughter charges for the killing. Some version of the law has been passed by legislatures in 22 states, and it’s been defended as a “human right” by the National Rifle Association — which helped draft and disseminate the laws along with the American Legislative Exchange Council. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Attorney General Eric Holder, and President Obama himself have said “Stand Your Ground” laws need to be re-examined in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict.
Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, citing “Stand Your Ground” in their reasoning, and kicking off the initial round of protests over the case. But subsequent to his arrest, Zimmerman and his lawyer declined to raise the law as a defense, leading many commentators — including Weatherford in his op-ed — to characterize it as irrelevant. But “Stand Your Ground” was cited in the instructions given to the jury. And interviews with several jurors make it clear that, explicitly cited or not, “Stand Your Ground” now comprises part of the inescapable legal infrastructure Florida jurors must use when judging self-defense.
A recent study out of Texas A&M; University found an 8 percent increase in homicides over a ten-year period in states with “Stand Your Ground” style laws in place. Another study by the Urban Institute found twice as many homicides are deemed justifiable in “Stand Your Ground” states. The studies found no reason to think the laws do anything to reverse the large racial disparities that exist when homicides are ruled justifiable, and some evidence they actually worsen the gap. Nor was any evidence found that “Stand Your Ground” laws deter burglary, robbery, or assault.
Despite all that, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) — the chairman of the Florida legislature’s Criminal Justice Subcommittee, whom Weatherford tapped to lead the hearings — showed little enthusiasm for revisiting the law. “I don’t expect that the Legislature’s going to move one damn comma,” Gaetz said. “If the members of the committee support changes, they will be proposed, but nobody can count on my vote.”