On Tuesday, during the first public meeting of the 19-member Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection, convened by Gov. Rick Scott to examine Florida's Stand Your Ground law, some on the panel did little to allay criticisms that it's biased in its viewpoints.
When the members of the panel were announced in April, critics blasted the group as inherently biased and unfairly weighted with supporters of Scott, a Republican, and of the law itself, which gives people wide discretion in the use of deadly force. Four of the lawmakers on the panel either authored or voted for the law.
At the conclusion of the meeting, at which more than 100 people testified on the bill, state Senator David Simmons, a co-author, defended the law and scorned those who he says have spread falsehoods and inaccuracies about the motives behind it.
Simmons called out groups by name, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, members of which suggested during the meeting that the law is part of a broader strategy crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative public policy group that engineered similar "stand your ground" laws nationally.
"I am a person that had a significant hand in drafting [the bill]," said Simmons, a Republican, during the meeting in Longwood, a neighboring town of Sanford, where Trayvon Martin was killed. "Some of the stories that you have heard here today, some are unfortunately a result of misinformation and some of it is just inaccurate."
Simmons said that fellow Republican state Rep. Dennis Baxley, who is also a member of the task force, first brought the bill to him and that he began redrafting it and making "significant" changes. Baxley said his hope was to craft a bill that was more in line with laws he saw in other states, which stipulate that victims do not have to attempt to flee before defending themselves against an attacker.
"I want to state to you first, ALEC ... had nothing to do with the drafting of this bill. [ALEC] didn't become involved until Florida passed the law. Wasn't any ALEC involved, wasn't the NRA either," Simmons said. "At the same time I will say to you madam chairman [Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll] that I have an open mind ... so if there is some improvement that we could make to this law, I'll be the first person to suggest it."
The bill, which sailed through the state legislature in 2005 with bipartisan majorities, was crafted to strengthen existing self-defense laws after a series of major hurricanes raised fears of looters. But critics say the law is ambiguously written, which consequently has allowed some misapplication. Recent investigative reports suggest a troubling pattern in the application of the law, which seems to skew along racial lines.
Among the more controversial aspects of the debate are the law's possibly biased application, its widespread support among gun rights advocates like the NRA and conservative groups like ALEC, and a number of recent high-profile shootings, including the Trayvon Martin case, in which people have attempted to invoke the law as a legal defense.
"My name has been brought up several times today," Baxley said during the meeting. "I want to thank Sen. Simmons. This man just gave the most accurate, transparent explanation of what went on in 2005 ... We need to be accurate and there are people that get excited and they use situations like what happened here in Florida to promote an agenda that they are already behind."
Baxley said that he is very concerned about some "inequity in application, but that doesn't make it a bad law."
"There's no color, there's no gender. What about a young African boy [sic] that's jumped by a bunch of skinheads?... That bill protects him," Baxley said. "I hope in our zeal to treat people fairly that we don't diminish the right of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves."
Task force member Rev. R.B. Holmes of Tallahassee said that early support of the law by certain members of the panel does not in and of itself mean the panel can't be objective.
"This law is not the law that many of our legislators voted for. Nobody meant for this law to protect someone like George Zimmerman," Holmes told The Huffington Post. "I think the Stand Your Ground law goes too far if criminals and thugs and drug dealers and gangsters and race haters -- black or white -- are using this law to protect themselves. But if a law-abiding citizen uses this law to protect his or her family, I think that is a good thing."
Five more public meetings are planned across the state, and Florida International University College of Law will be gathering data statewide on Stand Your Ground cases. The task force intends to take what is gleaned from court testimony and research and make a recommendation to Gov. Scott next year.
"I'm confident that, once all of the facts come in, that this task force is going to do the right thing. I think it's time now for us to get some fresh minds and fresh eyes to look at this law objectively," Holmes said. "So far, I'm not seeing anyone digging in on their position. That's encouraging, but I'm an optimist."
Those who testified during the hearing on Tuesday included prosecutors and public defenders, as well as individuals who fear the law will lead to vigilante-style killings and others who said their lives were saved because of existing gun laws.
"What we have here, in essence, is not a government of the people, by the people, for the people," said Freddie Lee Andrews, of the Orange County NAACP, who believes ALEC did play a role in the state's law. "What we have is a government of special interest, by special interest and for the special interest."
Clifton Taylor, who said he was a retired air marshal, spoke in support of the current law.
"Every day, hundreds of violent offenders go through the revolving doors of our state correctional facilities because they are too packed. They are at the McDonald's we take our kids to, the Walmarts we shop at, they are out there in the public sphere with us all the time," he said. "Only thing standing between them and your life is the luck of the draw ... Ain't no time to retreat, retreat is gone. They are committing an act on you, so you have to stand your ground."
Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, the parents of Trayvon Martin, also testified before the panel.
They brought with them 35 cardboard boxes carrying upwards of 370,000 signed petitions in support of an amendment to the current Stand Your Ground law in light of the shooting death of their son. Martin's killer, neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, 28, says he shot the teen in self-defense. Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, saying that he was protected under the state's Stand Your Ground law. Zimmerman was subsequently arrested 44 days later and charged with second-degree murder.
"Where does it say in these laws that the neighborhood watch volunteer can chase down an unarmed teen, shoot him and claim self-defense? We're not against the law. But the law has to be re-evaluated," Tracy Martin told the panel. "Basically this law is telling us that it's okay to be a vigilante in our society," he said. "Fix these laws so that the law applies to a person who is literally in danger and trying to protect himself or herself."
The parents asked the panel to take an honest look at the current law and support a "Trayvon Martin amendment."
"I just want them to take a look at the law," Sybrina Fulton told Soledad O'Brien on Wednesday morning on CNN's "Starting Point." "I'm not opposed to the law, I just want them to review the law. And I still feel that it is something wrong if a minor, a kid, a teenager, was shot and killed and pursued by an adult, and he's not with us. And I just think that they need to look at that law."
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more