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Tue March 11, 2014
NPR Story

Fla. Lawmakers Turn Deaf Ear Toward 'Stand Your Ground' Protesters

Originally published on Tue March 11, 2014 9:28 am

Inside Florida's Capitol, calls to change or repeal Stand Your Ground are having little impact.

On Tuesday, several hundred people in Tallahassee, Fla., gathered outside the Capitol building calling for changes in the law. The march and rally came a month after a jury in Jacksonville deadlocked on a murder charge in the case of Michael Dunn. Dunn is the software designer who shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis in a dispute over loud music.

Tuesday's rally was the latest in a series of Stand Your Ground rallies that have been held in Tallahassee since the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman raised concerns about the law.

Attorney General Eric Holder has also been outspoken about so-called Stand Your Ground laws, saying he's concerned they may actually encourage violence.

But Tuesday's rally was larger than many previous ones and included national figures—activist Al Sharpton and radio personality Tom Joyner. But the message was one heard in Tallahassee many times before: Change the law.

Nearly all who marched were African American. The songs were from the civil rights movement: "We will not be moved," and "We Shall Overcome."

Sharpton says that like the earlier struggles, the battle to change Stand Your Ground is a civil rights issue. The law, pioneered in Florida and now adopted by more than 20 other states conflicts with civil rights guaranteed by federal law and the constitution, Sharpton believes.

"The history of the civil rights movement has been state law versus national federal law. Trayvon Martin had the federal right to go home. Jordan Davis had the right under federal law to drive with his friends," Sharpton said at the rally.

Sharpton says he and other black leaders raised the issue of possible civil rights violations because of Stand Your Ground when they met with President Obama and attorney general Holder recently at the White House.

Emphasizing his point, Sharpton introduced to the audience family members of Emmett Till, the black teenager killed in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman.

But in Florida and nationally, the family members most closely associated with Stand Your Ground are the parents of Trayvon Martin. His mother, Sybrina Fulton said the law is not being used as the legislature intended it.

After the rally, Fulton spoke inside Florida's Capitol to a state Senate committee.

ROLL TAPE....20

I know certainly you all and others would not have created a law that would allow people to shoot and kill teenagers that are absolutely not doing anything wrong and be allowed to get away with it.

Despite the outcry, in Florida and across the country, there is little appetite among Republican leaders in the state legislature to do anything to change the law. After Zimmerman's acquittal, a task force convened by the Governor held hearing s throughout the state and made several recommendations—none of which have been adopted.

Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican and chairman of the House Criminal Justice subcommittee says rallies don't accomplish much.

ROLL TAPE..... 19

Well I think votes tell us a lot more than the rallies do. We had a vote in the Criminal Justice subcommittee on whether or not to repeal the Stand Your Ground law. Every Republican voted against repeal and a majority of Democrats on the Criminal Justice subcommittee voted against repealing the law. And I t hin k that that i llustrates that fact that most Floridians support the Stand Your Ground law.

Gaetz says he'll fight any efforts to water down the law—including a bill currently being considered in Florida's senate. It's sponsored by a Republican, David Simmons and the Senate Minority leader, Chris Smith. It would bar the Stand Your Ground defense, Smith says, for people who initiate or escalate a confrontation.

ROLL TAPE...14

It keeps the basic premise of no duty to retreat. But then, what we're trying to do is take away the no duty to retreat from the truly bad people we see. And I think it's the prudent thing to do.

It's not repeal, just a modest but significant change to a controversial law. But its chances of passage are slim. The NRA—perhaps the strongest lobby in Tallahassee—helped write Stand Your Ground and so far has opposed any substantive changes to the law.

In the meantime, Florida's legislature is moving quickly on another change to the state's gun laws. It's a bill that protects students from getting into trouble for using simulated weapons at school—including a sandwich or a piece of pastry shaped like a gun. It's being called the "pop tart" bill. Passage seems likely.

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Transcript

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There are plenty of states with Stand Your Ground laws but Florida has most often been in the news for killings where the law has been brought up. Yesterday several hundred people gathered outside Florida's capital building calling for changes in the law. The march and rally came a month after a jury in Jacksonville deadlocked on a murder charge in the case of Michael Dunn. Dunn is the software designer who shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis in a dispute over loud music.

But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, inside Florida's capital, those calls to change or repeal Stand Your Ground are having little impact.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It was the latest in a series of Stand Your Ground rallies that had been held in Tallahassee since the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman raised concerned about the law. Yesterday's rally was larger than many previous ones and included national figures - activist Al Sharpton and radio personality Tom Joyner. But the message was one heard in Tallahassee many times before.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Change the law. Change the law.

ALLEN: Nearly all who marched were African-American. The songs were from the civil rights movement - "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "We Shall Overcome."

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) I shall not be moved...

ALLEN: Like the earlier struggles, the battle to change Stand Your Ground, Sharpton said, is a civil rights issue. The law, pioneered here in Florida, and now adopted by more than 20 other states, Sharpton believes conflicts with civil rights guaranteed by federal law and the Constitution.

REVEREND AL SHARPTON: Now, the history of the civil rights movement has been state law versus national, federal law. Trayvon Martin had the federal right to go home. Jordan Davis had the right, under federal law, to drive with his friends.

ALLEN: Sharpton says he and other black leaders raised the issue of possible civil rights violations because of Stand Your Ground when they met with President Obama and Attorney General Holder recently at the White House. The family members most closely associated with Stand Your Ground are the parents of Trayvon Martin. His mother, Sabrina Fulton, says the law is not being used as the legislature intended it.

After the rally, Fulton spoke inside Florida's capitol to a state senate committee.

SABRINA FULTON: I know certainly you all and others would not have created a law that would allow people to shoot and kill teenagers that are absolutely not doing anything wrong and be allowed to get away with it.

ALLEN: Despite the outcry in Florida and across the country, there is little appetite among Republican leaders in the state legislature to do anything to change the law. After Zimmerman's acquittal, a task force convened by the governor held hearings throughout the state and made several recommendations, none of which have been adopted. Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican and chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said rallies don't accomplish much.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE MATT GAETZ: Well, I think that the votes tell us a lot more than the rallies do. We had a vote in the Criminal Justice Subcommittee on whether or not to repeal the Stand Your Ground law. Every Republican voted against repeal. And a majority of Democrats on the Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted against repealing the law. And I think that that illustrates the fact that most Floridians support the Stand Your Ground law.

ALLEN: Gaetz says he'll fight any efforts to water down the law, including a bill currently being considered in Florida's Senate. It's sponsored by Republican David Simmons and a Democrat, Chris Smith. It would bar the Stand Your Ground defense, Smith says, for people who initiate or escalate a confrontation.

STATE SENATOR CHRIS SMITH: It keeps the basic premise of no-duty-to-retreat. But then what we were trying to do is take away that no-duty-retreat from the truly bad people. We've seen - and I think it is the prudent thing to do.

ALLEN: It's not repeal, just a modest but significant change to a controversial law, but its chances of passage are slim. The NRA, perhaps the strongest lobby in Tallahassee, helped write Stand Your Ground and so far has opposed any substantive changes to the law.

In the meantime, Florida's legislature is moving quickly on another change to the state's gun laws. It's a bill that protects students from getting into trouble from using simulated weapons at school, including a sandwich or a piece of pastry shaped like a gun. It's being called The Pop-Tart Bill. Passage seems likely.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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