JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Gun rights advocates on Tuesday told a task force reviewing Florida's "stand your ground" law that the statute needs to be revised to take the burden off defendants trying to prove their use of force was justified.
The burden instead should be placed on prosecutors, and their offices should be required to pay the cost of a stand your ground hearing if defendants have charges dropped, said Eric Friday, lead counsel for the gun rights group Florida Carry Inc.
"Prosecutors will be much more cautious on how they take action," Friday told members of the Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection during its last hearing involving public comment. Friday said the cost of a defense can be as much as $20,000.
The task force was in Jacksonville for its sixth meeting, and will begin deliberating recommendations next month. It will present its recommendations to the Florida Legislature next year.
Gov. Rick Scott appointed the task force to review Florida's law following the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in February. Zimmerman has claimed self-defense under the law and is pleading not guilty to a second-degree murder charge.
The law currently gives defendants wide latitude in claiming self-defense. The 2005 legislation allows individuals to use deadly force provided they are doing nothing unlawful and relieves them of a duty to retreat.
A defendant who invokes the stand your ground law can have a nonjury hearing before a judge before going to trial. If the judge finds the self-defense argument valid, the judge can dismiss the charges against the defendant.
Friday also argued that in some cases defendants should be able to invoke the law even if they are doing something unlawful, citing the example of someone who may be unlawfully selling Avon products out of her house without a proper business license.
Former National Rifle Association president Marion Hammer told the task force that there is no need to change the law. But she said recommendations were needed to make sure the law is applied and interpreted consistently.
"The law codified the right to self-defense that most people believe are in place," Hammer said. "The law was intended to protect people."
Supporters of more restrictive gun laws criticized the task force for only having gun rights advocates testify during its last hearing in which members of the public were allowed to testify. Supporters of making Florida's law more restrictive, including Martin's parents, have testified at previous hearings. But many of them were pessimistic that the task force will change the law significantly, particularly given that one of the legislation's authors is on the task force.
"It doesn't look very promising," said Ginny Simmons, director of the Second Chance Campaign, a coalition of civil rights groups and elected officials opposed to stand your ground laws across the nation. "I've felt like from the beginning it was set up to be biased. It's composed of people who are strongly biased toward the law ... and the few dissenting voices don't ever seem to speak up."
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