TALLAHASSEE — For a month this summer, protesters enraged by the acquittal of George Zimmerman turned the normally sleepy Florida Capitol into center stage of a contemporary social-justice showdown.
They slept outside Gov. Rick Scott's office. They held news conferences with civil-rights leaders. They drew national television audiences.
Their aim: to force the Florida Legislature to take notice of policies they saw as racially discriminatory, especially the controversial 2005 "stand your ground" law initially invoked after Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012.
The movement made a mark. On Tuesday, lawmakers will begin considering modifying the law, which allows someone with "a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily injury" to use deadly force.
"I'm glad that right now we have people who care and who actually acknowledge the voice of the youth and the power we hold," said Ky'Eisha Penn, a 22-year-old Florida State University student from Miami who helped organize the Dream Defenders protests and plans to bring other students to lobby lawmakers this week.
The proposed modifications don't make major changes to the law — one sponsor, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, describes them as "tweaks" — but they mark the first time lawmakers have looked at the law since a task force appointed by Scott recommended last year that it be modified.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the protests "helped," although senators have been discussing changes for a year.
"People on all sides of the aisle have expressed the feeling that we need to look at this thing," said Smith. "I'm confident something can come out of the Senate. I think a significant amount will be changed, and I think it will be for the better."
The GOP-dominated Legislature refused to give "stand your ground" related bills a hearing last spring.
But when a six-member Seminole County jury acquitted Zimmerman in July, protests erupted, even though by then the self-defense law wasn't part of Zimmerman's defense.
The protesters wanted a special session to repeal the law and forced a poll of lawmakers, who rejected it. House and Senate leaders would agree only to the hearings.
The legislation slated for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday is inspired by some problems exposed in the Trayvon Martin case. It would require county sheriffs to set guidelines for "neighborhood watch" programs like the one to which Zimmerman belonged, and to restrict their activities to observing and reporting suspected crimes.
Zimmerman said he followed Trayvon Martin as the teen walked back to the condo where his father was staying. The two confronted one another, with fatal results.
As recommended by the task force Scott named last year to review the law, the bill would also prohibit people who are the "aggressors" in confrontations from then claiming "stand your ground" immunity. And it would specify that law enforcement must still conduct a full investigation in shootings where the law is being claimed as a defense.
"This is an excellent law. Is it perfect? No. Can it be improved? Yes," said Simmons, who sponsored the original "stand your ground" law in 2005.
"These are what I would call tweaks, clarifications and improvements that the task force in its investigation came up with. I agreed with them. And I can tell you, I'm very pleased this law has withstood the scrutiny it has endured over the last seven years, the last year particularly."
The House in November plans to hear a separate bill repealing the law completely, although it has little hope of passing.
House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, says he doesn't want to change one "damn comma" in the statute.
"I'm having a hearing because the speaker told me to have a hearing," Gaetz said. "I don't think any changes are warranted. I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming that 'stand your ground' has kept Floridians safer."
That said, "The speaker's asked us to take an open-minded, objective review of the law, and that's what we intend to do."
National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer said the bills still don't address one of the major recommendations of Scott's task force — defining what "unlawful activity" would justify lethal force. Courts have heard self-defense claims based on someone else's reckless driving or other minor "illegal" acts — even including being an illegal immigrant.
"We support the recommendations of the task force," Hammer said, although her powerful gun-rights groups will likely oppose any major "weakening" of the law.
A study released last month by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the National Urban League and other groups, reported that in the 22 states that have implemented "stand your ground" laws, justifiable homicides had climbed an average of 53 percent — and by 200 percent in Florida. In states that do not have those laws, the rate has declined marginally.
The study also found that the number of deaths of black people deemed to be justifiable in states with those laws has doubled.
Despite that, polling suggests public opinion has remained squarely in favor of Florida's law. Critics say that hasn't discouraged them from trying to win passage for a broader "Trayvon's law" push to target racial profiling, "zero tolerance" policies in schools, along with repealing "stand your ground."
A group of students from FSU and Florida A&M University plan to lobby lawmakers this week to support those changes.
"We want more people on our side and even more people are listening," said Penn, the FSU student organizer. "But we're definitely making more progress than the first day in the Capitol this summer, when we were basically being looked over. Now we have people on our side."
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