THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 18, 2012
Incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith ratcheted up criticism of Florida's "stand your ground" law Friday, pointing to a loophole that could endanger some women, rather than protect them.
Smith's remarks came in response to a recent case in which a Jacksonville woman was sentenced in a domestic assault case.
Smith said the law – which allows people to shoot back when threatened without a duty to retreat – could actually end up making domestic violence victims more vulnerable.
Smith, an attorney, said the "stand your ground" law affords domestic violence victims fewer rights than they had before it was passed in 2005 – unless they have an injunction for protection.
"An invited guest is considered a 'resident' under the law," he wrote in a recent analysis. "This means that as soon as a woman invites her ex-husband to pick up their children at her home, she is powerless to defend herself, even if she holds sole title to the property. Given that most attacks happen at home, by relatives or individuals known to the victim, this loophole in the law is unconscionable."
While the Trayvon Martin killing that has brought the stand your ground self defense law into new focus in Florida involved two young men, Martin and shooter George Zimmerman, some of the focus on the need for a lenient self defense law has begun to focus on the needs of women.
Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz and his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, both Republicans, made that claim in a recent editorial headlined: "Calls to repeal Stand Your Ground are anti-woman.:
"Consider an elderly woman in a dimly lit parking lot or a college girl walking to her dorm at night," they wrote in the May 2 Northwest Florida Daily News in Fort Walton Beach. "If either was attacked, her duty was to turn her back and try to flee, probably be overcome and raped or killed. Prior to Stand Your Ground, that victim didn’t have the choice to defend herself, to meet force with force."
Both Gaetz senior, R-Niceville, and Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala and House sponsor of the measure, dismissed concerns by Smith that for other women, the law makes things worse.
"Sen. Smith's been working too hard," said Baxley. "He needs to let the Citizen Safety and Protection Task Force, which has a lot of smart people on it, complete their work before he starts proposing changes to statute."
The Citizen Safety and Protection Task Force was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to review the "stand your ground" law following Martin's death Feb. 26 in Sanford in a case that has drawn international attention.
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, entered a not-guilty plea after remaining free for five weeks – until the case had become a national controversy.
Now, after an organizational meeting earlier this month, the Scott task force is slated to hold its first public hearing in Sanford on June 12. Baxley is a member of the panel, which has been criticized for including him and two other lawmakers who voted for the "stand your ground" law – plus a fourth, Jason Brodeur, who was elected in 2010 and sponsored last year's law banning doctors from asking patients about guns in their homes.
The panel's chair, Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, also voted for "stand your ground" while a House member. There are no known gun-control advocates on the panel.
Smith did not wait for Scott to name his panelists before creating a separate, South Florida-based task force that recommended changes to "stand your ground" last month. These included grand jury involvement, public education, and a self-defense claims tracking system.
On Friday, Smith also said a domestic violence exemption should be part of the overhaul.
He said he was "very surprised" to discover the domestic violence provision last week after 31-year-old Marissa Alexander of Jacksonville was sentenced in an assault case for firing a shot at her husband during a dispute in their home when she said she was under attack.
Using a "stand your ground" defense, Alexander rejected a plea bargain, lost her case and received a 20-year sentence under a mandatory minimum law for gun crimes.
"I immediately thought how Gaetz and others are talking about poor, helpless women defending themselves," said Smith. "More women are attacked in their homes than in the Publix parking lot."
The Gaetzes wrote that "[i]mposing a duty-to-flee (puts) the safety of the rapist above a woman’s own life. In fact, until Stand Your Ground was passed, criminals were suing victims because victims, in protecting themselves, were allegedly using excessive force against the criminals."
Gaetz senior called Smith a good friend and a good lawyer.
"If he believes that there's a way that we can strengthen Second Amendment protections for battered women, I'm all ears, and I can't wait for him to introduce the legislation," Gaetz said.
The discussion comes as Republicans and Democrats are locked in a national debate about which party better supports women.
In the case of Marissa Alexander, Jacksonville Congresswoman Corrine Brown, a Democrat, called on the U.S. Department of Justice to study whether "stand your ground" is applied fairly.
Meanwhile, the Gaetzes also saw a role for stand your ground in the national debate.
"Riding the extreme rhetoric of Al Sharpton and encouraged by the 'concerns' of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, anti-gun groups have already declared ['stand your ground'] guilty of murder and sentenced it for repeal by the Florida Legislature," wrote the Gaetzes in their op-ed.
Baxley said other laws might be more applicable to domestic violence cases than "stand your ground."
"I think what we're figuring out is – case by case – sometimes it applies and sometimes it doesn't.
"I am going to continue to be very cautious about doing anything to ["stand your ground"] that would diminish law-abiding citizens from defending themselves," he said.