Will Weatherford: No Reason To Change 'Stand Your Ground' Without Unified Message From Law Enforcement

TAMPA - State House Speaker Will Weatherford said Tuesday he's willing to consider legislation changing the state's "stand your ground" law but first would have to see a consistent, unified message from law enforcement officials on what changes are needed.

Without such a message, Weatherford said, he sees no reason to change the law -- and no need for a special session of the Legislature to consider it before the regular session next spring, as some have called for.

"I'm a supporter of 'stand your ground,'" the Wesley Chapel Republican told the Tribune editorial board Tuesday, even though he was not yet in the Legislature when the measure passed in 2005.

"I think there's been some misapplication of the law" because of varying interpretations by judges, Weatherford said. "To me, there's nowhere in that 'stand your ground' law that says the aggressor who physically starts an altercation then has the right to claim self-defense."

Weatherford said the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman should not be made part of the debate over the law because "it wasn't even used in his defense."

Instructions to the jury, however, included provisions of "stand your ground.'

The instructions said, "If Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force" to prevent death, bodily harm or a "forcible felony."

Florida law enforcement officials have been wary of the law.

The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which represents elected state attorneys, opposed the law at the time of its passage and continued to do so when a task force re-examined the law last year.

The state sheriff's association was neutral at the time, but several prominent sheriffs and police chiefs opposed it.

Meantime, the other most powerful member of the Florida Legislature, state Senate President Don Gaetz, said he's not concerned about the possibility of an economic boycott of Florida over the "stand your ground" law and sees no move on the part of state senators to change it.

Boycott threats have come from entertainers including singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder.

In an interview on The Florida Channel, Gaetz pointed out that 20 other states have also adopted such laws so boycotters "will have a limited concert venue."

"Not one senator has called me or written me and asked me to put a bill that would repeal 'stand your ground' on the agenda for the next legislative session," he said.

Gaetz and Gov. Rick Scott have also rejected calls for a special legislative session on the law as called for by protesters who have camped out in the Capitol since July 16.

Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober said he personally opposes the law.

"I have always believed law should place a high value on human life," Ober said Tuesday. "Before someone exercises deadly force, if they can retreat without causing bodily injury or death to themselves, they should do so."

The "stand your ground" law removed a requirement that a person retreat, if it's safely possible, before using deadly force in self-defense, Ober said.

The Florida Sheriff's Association took no stand on the law in 2005 or last year, but several big-city sheriffs and police chiefs opposed it at the time of passage, according to news reports then.

Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said he would defer to the views of prosecutors concerning the law, but said his department has seen a few cases in which someone who was the original aggressor in an argument, and committed a killing as result, successfully claimed a "stand your ground" defense.

The law, Gee said Tuesday, "puts an extra burden on the prosecution. That could make it more difficult in a case where it's really murder."

Attorney General Pam Bondi, asked her view on the law, issued a statement via email: "I am always open to hearing from people on changes to any laws that can better protect Floridians. I believe law enforcement has a unique perspective to offer and one which should be heard."

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