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What we think: If 'stand your ground' stands, give it makeover

Laws and LegislationJustice SystemDavid SimmonsRick ScottU.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary

After months of controversy over Florida's "stand your ground" law, some fixes for its worst flaws could finally be on the way. This month a state Senate panel approved a measure that would modify the law that became notorious for delaying George Zimmerman's arrest after he shot Trayvon Martin.

Ideally, lawmakers would do away with the law. But we recognize that the state's most powerful politicians, starting with Gov. Rick Scott, have no interest in repeal. So the best that's possible, for now, is to make it less prone to abuse.

The 2005 statute says those who feel threatened with death or serious injury can stand their ground and respond with deadly force, and be shielded from arrest, prosecution and lawsuits. But a review last year by the Tampa Bay Times found dozens of cases in which the law had been used successfully as a legal defense by people who had been looking for fights, shot unarmed victims or chased them down.

This month the Senate Judiciary Committee merged bills to amend "stand your ground." One was sponsored by Sen. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat and a longtime critic of the law. The other was sponsored by Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican and the drafter of the original law.

The measure would require that law enforcement set guidelines for Neighborhood Watch groups and ban members from confronting individuals. It would tighten the law's language to make it more difficult for persons who are aggressors from using "stand your ground" as a defense. And it would do away with immunity from civil lawsuits in a "stand your ground" case in which gross negligence leads to injury or death.

While the bill passed 7-2 in the Senate Judiciary committee, its prospects in the House aren't as bright. House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican, has said he doesn't want to change one "damn comma" in the statute.

Yet even Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who sponsored the law, has said he doesn't understand why prosecutors wouldn't go after drug dealers and other felons who shoot someone and then claim self-defense.

"'Stand your ground' was written for law-abiding citizens who are doing nothing wrong," he told the Ocala Star Banner this summer. "I think it's perfectly clear that this doesn't apply if you're doing something illegal."

In practice, the law hasn't been clear. The good news is after eight years of confounding claims and puzzling interpretations, some senators have decided to do something about it. We urge House members to follow suit.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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