Left: 'Stand your ground' gets a late second thought in Florida

By RANDY SCHULTZAugust 4, 2013 

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- So now, eight years too late, they want to say how they really feel about "stand your ground."

As The Palm Beach Post reported last week, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg and gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich believe that the Legislature should fix the self-defense law they blindly voted for in 2005 as Democratic state senators. Some might say they have come to their senses. More likely, their decision was about politics then and is about politics now.

"Stand your ground" drastically expanded the right of self-defense in Florida, in three ways. No longer did someone who feared for his or her life have a duty to retreat before using deadly force if in fear of "great bodily harm." No longer did the "castle doctrine" apply just in one's home; it applied anywhere someone happened to be. Finally, "stand your ground" protected someone who used the law as a successful defense from being sued in civil court for wrongful death. It is a unique immunity defense.

Such a change should not have come without lots of debate, with sponsors forced to justify the need for such a change. None of that happened. The law passed just halfway through the legislative session. The National Rifle Association wanted it, and Democrats wanted to show that they could kiss up to the NRA just like Republicans. One senator said this:

"Even voters who are hurt by Republican economic priorities vote Republican because they don't trust us on cultural wedge issues like gun control and religion. The voters stop listening to us, and they don't even get to our economic issues. So we're trying to show that, if you are a gun owner, you are a Democrat, too."

That senator was Mr. Aronberg, who basically was admitting that Democrats were ignoring possible public safety consequences of the law, which should have been a bipartisan concern. Mr. Aronberg wasn't alone. Nan Rich and every other Democrat in the Senate voted with him. So did plenty of Democrats in the House. The bill passed 39-0 in the Senate and 94-20 in the House.

One could argue that since the armed George Zimmerman killed the unarmed Trayvon Martin 17 months ago -- "stand your ground" was not invoked at trial but influenced the jury instructions -- Florida has had a belated debate on "stand your ground." Gov. Rick Scott created a task force that held hearings. But the governor stacked the panel with "stand your ground" supporters, and it recommended no significant changes.

Not coincidentally, however, the two panel members most skeptical of "stand your ground" were a prosecutor and a criminal court judge. Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle wrote that the law should not provide self-defense protection for those who provoke a confrontation, as George Zimmerman did. Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Krista Marx, a former prosecutor, said the law is too broad and vague. What is "great bodily harm?"

In 2005, supporters of "stand your ground" provided no case of a Floridian who had been unjustly prosecuted after claiming self-defense.

Hype and fear prevailed. Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who served on the task force, said in 2005: "Some violent rape will not occur because somebody will feel empowered by this bill. Somebody's child will not be abducted. ... You're going to prevent a murder." During all those task force meetings, Rep. Baxley offered no examples of "stand your ground" preventing a rape, abduction or murder. He claimed that the law was responsible for the drop in violent crime that was happening well before "stand your ground."

Mr. Aronberg blamed judges for expanding "stand your ground" beyond "what the Legislature intended." In fact, warnings came in 2005 -- one came from Priscilla Taylor, then a Democratic House member and now a Palm Beach County commissioner.

Interestingly, the man who preceded Mr. Aronberg as state attorney is a big critic of "stand your ground." Pete Antonacci now is Gov. Scott's chief counsel. Perhaps Mr. Antonacci can persuade the governor to say and do something about "stand your ground" before it's too late.

Randy Schultz is editor of the editorial page for The Palm Beach Post. E-mail, rschultz@pbpost.com.

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