TALLAHASSEE - Prompted by a national outcry over George Zimmerman's acquittal this summer in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a Florida Senate committee gave approval Tuesday to minor changes in the state's "stand your ground" law.
But whether a Legislature dominated by gun-loving lawmakers will ultimately sign off on a bipartisan compromise remains a long shot, despite a seemingly indifferent National Rifle Association, which helped write Florida's first-in-the-nation law.
The law's 2005 sponsor, Sen. David Simmons, defended the current law while conceding it could be better.
"It is an excellent common-sense law, but it is not perfect. That's coming from a person who was the main drafter of the 'stand your ground' law back in 2005," Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Simmons struck a deal with Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, whose attempts to modify the law earlier this year went nowhere. Florida's current NRA-backed law, which became a model for the rest of the country, allows individuals to use deadly force when they feel their lives are in danger and provides immunity from prosecution or civil lawsuits. The law, an expansion of the centuries-old "Castle Doctrine" that gives people the right to defend themselves with deadly force in their own homes, also removed the duty to retreat.
Tuesday's compromise (SB 130) would require law enforcement agencies to establish standards for neighborhood watch teams and require that police and sheriffs fully investigate cases in which "stand your ground" is a factor, something Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley insists they already do.
The proposal also strengthens current language in the law barring individuals who are aggressors from using "stand your ground" as a defense.
"All we do is add an 'I really mean it' phrase," Simmons, a lawyer, explained before the committee's 7-2 vote on the bill.
And the bill would also do away with civil immunity in "stand your ground" cases in which innocent bystanders are injured or killed, a contentious point that prompted one "no" vote from Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, chairman of the powerful Rules Committee. Simmons said later that he would be willing to remove that portion to ensure passage.
NRA Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer said the bill will do little to clear up concerns or confusion about the law. She said the NRA is neutral right now on the measure.
"If we think we're going to accomplish a lot by putting clarification in a bill now, I suggest that it's probably not going to work because it will be misinterpreted down the line and we'll be back again," Hammer, a former national president of the organization, said. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with trying to clear the air and clarify and fix some things. I wish I could tell you that we thought this bill would fix a lot of problems, but we don't. Will it do harm? It could, but we doubt it. We just don't think we're there yet."
The measure faces an even fiercer battle in the House, where Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Matt Gaetz plans to hold a hearing next month on "stand your ground" at the behest of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
"It was very elegant window-dressing," Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said of Tuesday's Senate meeting.
Simmons said his changes were part of the recommendations of a task force ordered by Gov. Rick Scott to look into the law in the aftermath of the shooting of Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old. Zimmerman was not charged with a crime for more than six weeks after the Feb. 26 shooting last year. Scott appointed a special prosecutor who eventually charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder after the failure of police to arrest Zimmerman prompted marches nationwide.
And Gaetz, a lawyer, said he does not feel compelled to take up Scott's task force's recommendations.
"I was not enamored by the work of the task force," he said.
Gaetz said he plans to take up a measure proposed by Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, that would repeal the law as well as the Castle Doctrine.
"At least his proposal frames up a real debate on the underlying issues," Gaetz said.
But Simmons and Smith said they hoped Tuesday's actions would "send a message" to the House that Democrats and Republicans can work together.
Florida's "stand your ground" law has become a flashpoint for minority groups like the NAACP, especially in the aftermath of Zimmerman's acquittal.
Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense but did not use "stand your ground" to avoid being prosecuted. But the law spawned changes to jury instructions that at least one Zimmerman juror said resulted in the not-guilty verdict.
NAACP general counsel Kim Keenan traveled from Washington and had dinner with Simmons and Smith, who is black, the night before the meeting.
Keenan praised the two senators for working together to reach a compromise in contrast to the gridlock in Congress that has shut down the government.
The NAACP supports the Simmons/Smith bill but favors repealing the law, Keenan said.
"We think it's a step in the right direction," she said. "This is about creating a world that is not the wild, wild west."
Several members of the "Dream Defenders," a group that held a 30-day sit-in outside Scott's Capitol office after the Zimmerman verdict spoke against the measure, citing studies that showed minorities are more likely to be charged with a crime when the victim is white.
"Rather than make our communities safer, this law forced us to meet force with force," Elijah Armstrong, a member of the organization and a Florida A&M University graduate student, said. " 'Stand your ground' laws make it more dangerous for a black person to walk down the street."
Although Smith intends to try to amend the measure to further define who the aggressor is in "stand your ground" situations, he called Tuesday's debate itself a victory.
"Today was significant that we got something done, that we moved a comma," Smith said, referring to Gaetz's earlier contention that "not one damn comma" in the law needs to be changed.
"Having the discussion, having it so that people from the public from Dream Defenders to NRA were able to speak on the record in a Senate committee about this issue, that's something we haven't been able to get in the past," he said.