U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made an impassioned call this week to overturn "stand your ground" laws in states across the nation in the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal in Trayvon Martin's shooting death.
But is there any hope of that happening in Florida, the law's birthplace? No, according to supporters — and even opponents — of the controversial legislation.
Addressing the NAACP national convention in Orlando on Tuesday, Holder, to wild applause, said it's time to "question the law that senselessly expanded the concept of self-defense."
But that clarion call was not met with the same enthusiasm by the National Rifle Association.
"The Attorney General fails to understand that self-defense is not a concept, it's a fundamental human right," Chris W. Cox, executive director of NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, wrote in an email statement Wednesday. "To send a message that legitimate self-defense is to blame is unconscionable, and demonstrates once again that this administration will exploit tragedies to push their political agenda."
The NRA and President Barack Obama have been at odds over gun laws since before he took office. His election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 set off gun-and-ammunition buying sprees by Americans fearing both might be banned or highly restricted.
Contrary to Holder's remarks, "stand your ground" was not invoked in the second-degree-murder trial that ended with Zimmerman's acquittal. His defense team put on a traditional case of self-defense — saying its client was a victim who killed an attacker — Trayvon — after being overpowered and facing death or serious injury.
"The U.S. Supreme Court adopted 'stand your ground' 90 years ago [on federal lands] … I found it inappropriate for him to make inappropriate criticism of any law," said Simmons, a lawyer of 36 years. "The attorney general is simply inaccurate. This is common-sense legislation that protects the innocent."
Simmons said the possibility of the law being overturned in Florida was "exceedingly limited, somewhere between zero and 1 percent."
Kareem K. Jordan, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, also doubted the current makeup of Florida legislators would repeal the law.
"We have a state in terms of the Legislature and the governor who are fairly conservative," Jordan said. "The only chance of repeal would be to elect brand-new people to office. But with the culture of this state, I highly doubt that will be the case."
Gun ownership and the right to carry firearm remains especially strong in the Sunshine State. Florida currently has 1.1 million active carry-concealed-weapon-permit holders, more than any other state, records show. And almost anyone 21 or older can legally carry a loaded handgun in a motor vehicle without a permit.
On the day Holder spoke in Orlando, the Rev. Al Sharpton stood outside Department of Justice headquarters in Washington and called for a federal civil-rights investigation into Trayvon's death. At the same time, he announced his group, the National Action Network, will "use Florida as the testing ground to challenge and change the 'stand your ground' laws in 29 states."
After hearing the chorus of calls for repeal of "stand your ground" Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott's office responded with a written statement.
"Immediately following Trayvon Martin's death, Governor Scott called a bi-partisan Special Task Force with 19 citizens to review Florida's Stand Your Ground Law," it read in part. "This Task Force listened to Floridians across the state and heard their [viewpoints] and expert opinions on this law. The task force recommended that the law should not be overturned, and Governor Scott agrees."
Florida's "stand your ground law" states, in part: "A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another."
The law dropped a long-standing requirement to try to retreat before using deadly force. The change was opposed by Florida prosecutors and law-enforcement officials who said existing state law at the time adequately covered self-defense killings.
In a 2006 investigation examining the first five months after the law was enacted, the Orlando Sentinel found 13 people in Central Florida were shot at in cases in which "stand your ground" was invoked. Six died. Four were wounded. Three escaped harm. Only one was also armed.
The law created widespread confusion at first among police, who were not allowed detain or arrest a suspect claiming "stand your ground" without clear evidence of another motive — such as anger or malice. So some Central Florida cases were turned over to prosecutors without an investigation.
Arthur C. Hayhoe, founder of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, opposes the law — but doesn't think it stands a chance of being overturned.
"No Republican will ever vote against an NRA bill in Florida," said Hayhoe, one the state's few vocal gun-control advocates. "When it hit the fan in 2005, we did our best to scream and holler that the law was trying to correct a problem that didn't exist. ... There was never a problem with self-defense in Florida."
He hopes to assist the NAACP and others to overturn the law, Hayhoe said.
Sean Caranna, founder of Florida Carry — a group advocating armed-self-defense rights — said restoring the requirement to attempt to retreat would backfire. He questioned, for example, how an armed Good Samaritan trying to save someone being beaten to death by an attacker should comply with the retreat requirement.
"It really creates a bad set of circumstances where you have to add something before protecting someone's life," Caranna said. "Defending life should be the priority."
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