TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers late Thursday voted down a bill to repeal the "stand your ground" law linked to the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin.
The 11-2 vote in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee likely kills any repeal effort in the Legislature this year. But a separate Senate measure still pending could revise the self-defense law first passed in 2005.
House and Senate Democrats this summer demanded that lawmakers pass some type of response in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon's death. The Republican majority agreed to hold the hearing Thursday in response.
"They're very serious issues. They're worthy of a serious debate," House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told the panel.
But committee Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said Democrats were on the wrong side of the issue.
"The evidence is overwhelming that 'stand your ground' keeps Floridians safer,'' Gaetz said, adding that most state residents support the law.
Democrats countered that lawmakers had a moral obligation to act.
"The stand your ground law … is not working," said Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, who sponsored the repeal bill (HB 4003). "This Legislature acts when there's a crisis and when public safety is at risk."
Williams cited research suggesting such self-defense laws result in higher violence rates.
"The streets are not safer,'' he said.
"Stand your ground" enables people who perceive a threat to use deadly force without first trying to retreat from a confrontation. It is far more lenient than the widely adopted Castle Doctrine, which allows people to defend themselves in their homes.
In February 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon was followed through a Sanford gated community by Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer. Zimmerman, who shot the black youth during an ensuing confrontation, was acquitted of second-degree murder in July.
Though he did not claim "stand your ground" as a defense at trial, Zimmerman's earlier assertion of the law caused massive protests and demonstrations, and the verdict prompted a 31-day sit-in at the Capitol by the Dream Defenders group during the summer.
Phillip Agnew, leader of the Dream Defenders, told the committee his group was growing statewide and would "remember in November" the lawmakers who voted against the repeal. He called "stand your ground" a law based solely "on our fears.''
Defeat of the bill in Gaetz's committee was expected. But a bipartisan group of senators is supporting another measure that makes changes along the lines of the recommendations that came out of a task force appointed by Gov. Rick Scott last year after Trayvon's shooting.
The Senate bill would require sheriffs and city police departments to set guidelines for Neighborhood Watch programs such as the one Zimmerman participated in and to restrict members to observing and reporting suspected crimes.
The bill also would prohibit people who are the aggressors in confrontations from then claiming "stand your ground" immunity.
And it would specify that law enforcement must conduct a full investigation in shootings even if the law is claimed as a defense — a change spurred by the Sanford Police Department's claim that it couldn't do so in the Zimmerman case.
One of the Senate bill's more controversial provisions would allow lawsuits against people acting in self-defense if they negligently injure or kill an innocent bystander.
Weatherford called the task-force recommendations "helpful." But he added that House leaders were undecided whether they would consider the Senate bill if it passes that chamber.
"We're always open to discussion," he said. "We'll wait and see how it progresses over there before making a determination."
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