TALLAHASSEE -- Lawmakers advanced changes to Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law Tuesday in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial and a summer of protests after his acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
But gun-rights groups and several Republican members of a Senate panel that passed the changes expressed doubts about the bill's provision that would allow lawsuits against people acting in self-defense if they negligently injure or kill an innocent bystander.
That was one of several recommendations that came out of a task force appointed by Gov. Rick Scott last year following the Martin shooting. But Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said he didn't think the change was necessary and voted against the bill, along with Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
"What we're saying is we're putting them in jeopardy even if they're trying to defend themselves," Thrasher said.
The lawmaker largely responsible for drafting the 2005 law – which allows citizens to use deadly force without trying to retreat if they feel their lives are in danger -- opened the two-hour hearing with a defense of it.
"Florida's Stand Your Ground law has been the subject of intense public debate and scrutiny," Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which passed the bill, 7-2.
"I think everyone has found it is an excellent, common sense law. But it is not perfect."
Simmons, who served on the Scott task force, said innocent bystanders deserved protection in cases where someone might spray bullets in the air or otherwise act with "negligence."
Simmons' bill, (SB 130) is being combined with similar legislation (SB 122) sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, although the two still have differences over how much protection to provide for people who use deadly force. Those differences, they said, would be worked out later.
"This has truly been an effort in which we have taken this issue, dealt with it in a bipartisan constructive manner and I believe reached a consensus thus far," Simmons said.
The legislation was inspired by problems exposed in the Martin case. The black 17-year-old was followed through a Sanford gated community by Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer. The two confronted one another, with fatal results.
Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder last July. Though he did not claim "stand your ground" as a defense at trial, his earlier assertion of the law triggered massive protests and demonstrations and the verdict prompted a sit-in at the Capitol.
The bill would require sheriffs and city police departments to set guidelines for "neighborhood watch" programs like Zimmerman's and to restrict members to observing and reporting suspected crimes.
"After what happened in Sanford we want to send a message to neighborhood watch programs ... about what is acceptable behavior," Smith said.
As recommended by Scott's task force, 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 conduct a full investigation in shootings even if the law is claimed as a defense – a change spurred by the Sanford police claim that it couldn't do so in the Zimmerman case.
Critics of the law say the fixes so far don't do enough.
Smith wants a broader definition of "aggressors" and for the state to track use of the law statewide to get better data than the anecdotal cases collected so far.
The bill also doesn't clarify ambiguity in the current law that says "stand your ground" immunity doesn't apply to those engaged in "unlawful activity." That's been defined as broadly as being an illegal immigrant, and Senate Judiciary Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said the bill should address this issue.
"We're here today because we disagree, but we're not afraid to discuss," Smith told the panel. "I support what we're doing today because I think it's important to the state of Florida."
In the House, Reps. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, are expected to carry similar bills, although Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, has also filed a bill to repeal 'stand your ground' entirely.
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