Standing Their Ground for “Kill at Will”Posted October 22nd, 2012 by Lori Haas
With grotesque shootings continuing to devastate families across America, I have been travelling quite a bit lately in my work advocating for responsible gun laws. On September 12-13, my destination was Florida, where I attended the state-appointed Florida Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection hearings that took place in West Palm Beach and Miami. The task force was put together by Florida Governor Rick Scott in the wake of the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by concealed handgun permit holder George Zimmerman on February 26 of this year.
Trayvon Martin’s death generated a firestorm of controversy about the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows residents to use lethal force during public confrontations if they fear “great bodily harm” even when they are capable of safely removing themselves from those altercations. The mission of the Florida Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection is to “review [the state’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law] and its implementation, listen to the concerns and ideas from Floridians, and make recommendations to the Governor and Florida Legislature to ensure the rights of all Floridians and visitors, including the right to feel safe and secure in our state.” In doing so, their charter is to “develop trust by bring objectivity to the meetings [and] listening with an open mind.”
When I attended their public hearings in West Palm Beach and Miami, however, I observed neither objectivity nor open minds. For starters, the composition of the task force is curious. Serving on it is the lead sponsor of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” legislation, Representative Dennis Baxley. He has gone on record repeatedly since the killing of Trayvon Martin to support the “Stand Your Ground” law, stating it “is a good law.” He is joined by another Florida legislator who co-sponsored the bill, Senator David Simmons. Then there is Representative Jason Brodeur, the lead sponsor of Florida legislation that seeks to prevent pediatricians and other doctors from counseling their patients about the risks of keeping firearms in the home.
The bias of the task force members was on display during both the hearings I attended. I was shocked to see them attack a speaker from Florida State University who was presenting data to the group. When she noted that Florida’s homicide rate has increased in the seven years since the “Stand Your Ground” law was passed (including a doubling in so-called “justifiable” homicides), she was harassed by several task force members despite making it clear that “no conclusions can be made” because the data was incomplete.
The treatment of the many gun violence survivors who testified in front of the task force was not much better. They were treated more politely, but their requests for the task force to consider dramatically revising or repealing the “Stand Your Ground” law were belittled or ignored entirely. These survivors included the family members of:
• Scott Standard, who was shot and killed by his next-door neighbor James W. Conner III after throwing a rock at Conner’s truck. Conner was never charged with any crime.
• Akil Oliver, who was beaten to death with a crowbar after an argument over 25 cents. His killer is expected to employ the “Stand Your Ground” defense.
• Kijuan Byrd, who was shot six times and killed by a security guard outside a strip club in Miami. Byrd was unarmed and sitting in his truck outside the club. The security guard, Lukace Shane Kendle, is expected to employ the “Stand Your Ground” defense.
By the end of the hearings, several members of the task force were openly admitting they would not even consider revising the law. Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley said the idea of reinstating the longstanding common law “duty to retreat” for those who can safely avoid conflicts is “incomprehensible.” The Rev. R.B. Holmes, the committee’s vice chairman, said standing one’s ground is “a Christian virtue.” Defense attorney Mark Seiden called “Stand Your Ground” a “God-given right.”
It was horrifying to observe. It is clear that Governor Scott put together a group that will do its utmost to protect the interests of the National Rifle Association. And human life in Florida will continue to be sacrificed for the “greater good” of increased gun sales driven by fear, paranoia and bloodlust.