'Gunshine State' acrimony doesn't faze lawmakers

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauJuly 31, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida has become a broad national target for its "Stand Your Ground" law since the July 13 acquittal of George Zimmerman.

"The Daily Show" mocked Florida as "the worst state." A protest group in its third week staging a sit-in outside Gov. Rick Scott's office has gained fans in England and Japan. And the law has sparked a rebuke from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who said it may encourage "violent situations to escalate."

But while the "Gunshine State" finds itself in the crosshairs of world public opinion, the lawmakers who approved "Stand Your

Ground" in 2005 have received little, if any, electoral blowback.

"It's not been a campaign issue," said state Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, who voted for it as a representative. "It's not like homeowners insurance or nuclear recovery costs."

Current state lawmakers who voted for "Stand Your Ground" outnumber those who opposed it by a 4-1 margin.

Republicans who approved it are unapologetic. Not one would repeal it now.

"It's never come up on the campaign trail, pro or con," said former state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who now serves as a Hillsborough County commissioner. "The firearm abolitionists are stirring the pot, using 'Stand Your Ground' as a platform to eliminate guns."

Democrats are far less unified. When Senate Bill 436 was signed April 26, 2005, by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, it enjoyed solid bipartisan support. It passed the Senate 39-0, a tally that included 14 Democrats, such as 2014 gubernatorial hopeful Nan Rich.

"I voted based on what I thought was the intent of the law," Rich said. "Obviously, if I knew then what I know about how the law was implemented, I would not have voted for that."

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, voted for it as a state senator, but in February issued a resolution urging the repeal of "Stand Your Ground." At a Miami rally following the Zimmerman verdict, Wilson told a crowd: "This legislation is so difficult to even decipher what it means. It applies to some cases, doesn't apply to another case. The Justice Department is confused. The legislators are confused. Everybody's confused."

She didn't return messages asking about her earlier support of the law.

Of the 133 lawmakers who voted for the legislation, 48 hold elected office today. A state representative from Miami became Sen. Marco Rubio. Eight others went on to Congress, where five still serve. State Sen. Jeff Atwater is Florida's chief financial officer. State Reps. Jeff Kottkamp and Jennifer Carroll ascended to lieutenant governor. Of the 94 representatives who approved it in the Florida House, 16 graduated to the state Senate.

Until the shooting death Feb. 26, 2012, of Trayvon Martin, some hadn't reconsidered their votes. State Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Aventura, said she had to look up the roll call to remember how she voted.

"When Trayvon was shot, the first thing I did was check my vote," Margolis said. "It didn't sound like something I voted for, but when I saw it, I was absolutely amazed. It was just one of those things, where it sounded reasonable, but wasn't."

Margolis and Rich said the bill breezed through the Senate with minimal discussion partly because of the reputation of its sponsor -- state Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview.

"Peaden was a solid, quiet southern gentleman," said Margolis, who favors repealing the law now. "There are people you have to worry about doing bad things as lawmakers. He wasn't one of them."

Another reason for the unanimous Senate support was state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, one of seven African-American senators to vote for it. Lawson said Peaden's message of self-defense resonated with him because of a 1996 home invasion in which his wife, Delores Lawson, was bound, gagged and assaulted.

"For me, it was a self-defense issue," he said.

Lawson said he doesn't favor repealing the law. Like most Republicans, the Democrat said it didn't apply in the Zimmerman case. But he said he's convinced the law should be reviewed following an investigation last year that showed in 200 cases where "Stand Your Ground" was used, nearly 70 percent of those who invoked it to avoid prosecution were successful and defendants were more likely to prevail if the victim is black.

The debate in the House was more robust. Twenty Democrats voted against it.

The bill's sponsor was state Rep. Dennis Baxley, who has been a divisive figure and is a fierce champion of the National Rifle Association.

State Reps. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and Jack Seiler of Fort Lauderdale led the Democratic opposition. Gelber later served in the Senate and ran for attorney general in 2010. Seiler is now mayor of Fort Lauderdale. Both spoke during debate of concerns the law would lead to violence.

As a former federal prosecutor, Gelber foresaw how "Stand Your Ground" would become perilous. On the House floor, he presciently imagined a case in which an argument escalates to the point where an armed person fires a weapon in self-defense and, protected by the law, accidentally shoots an innocent bystander.

"I simply believed it was going to create (legal) defenses that people should not be entitled to," Gelber says now.

Seiler envisioned gang members would use the law for immunity, which has played out in a number of cases.

"I was so frustrated that it passed in the language that it passed," Seiler said. "The way the law was written was flawed."

House Democrats who voted against it say they still don't understand why Senate Democrats voted for it en masse.

"I based my vote on what research there was and the testimony at the time," said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who voted against it as a representative. "It was a very bad bill."

But 12 House Democrats voted for it, including Bob Henriquez, now the Hillsborough County property appraiser, and Charlie Justice, now a Pinellas County commissioner.

"It's hard to look back that many years ago and say we could have foreseen any of this," said Henriquez, a conservative Democrat. "It didn't have anything to do with the Zimmerman case. Does it have flaws? Yes, and it should be looked at. But I stand by my original vote."

It's not like anyone has been asking, though. Henriquez, Crist, Margolis, Legg and Lawson said they hadn't been questioned about the legislation until now.

"No one else has asked me questions about it since I voted for it," Lawson said. "You're the first."

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