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War of words begins on eve of Stand Your Ground hearing

If you don't know what to expect at Thursday's long-anticipated Stand Your Ground hearing, don't worry.

Neither do House Democrats.

"We don't know what [Republicans] are going to do," House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, of Fort Lauderdale, said at a press conference Wednesday. "They are probably going to do not one damn thing."

The comment was an obvious reference to Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Fort Walton Beach Republican who will chair Thursday's hearing. Gaetz famously said he would not support changing "one damn comma" of the controversial self-defense law.

His panel, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, has set aside five hours to hear two Stand Your Ground bills: a proposal that would repeal the law by Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee; and a bipartisan effort to extend Stand Your Ground immunity to people who fire a warning shot.

Thurston chided Gaetz for leaving HB 33 off the agenda. The bill by Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, mirrors a bipartisan Stand Your Ground reform bill that's already found support in the Senate.

Thurston said that's the kind of effort House Democrats would back.

"There's a high probability that if legislation is passed in a bipartisan, bicameral way, I think [Gov. Rick Scott] will be inclined to do the right thing and sign it," he said.

Gaetz watched the press conference from the back of the room.

When it was over, Gaetz slipped out and held an impromptu press conference outside of the House Democratic Office.

Gaetz said Thurston's remarks were "a result of the frustration that he's unable to secure the full support of his own caucus for a repeal of Stand Your Ground."

He characterized the caucus as "divided" and said the press conference had undercut Williams' efforts to repeal the law.

"Today, you didn't hear a unified message," Gaetz said. "Think about what happened to Rep. Williams.... The day before Rep. Williams is going to present his bill to repeal Stand Your Ground, the leader of their own party stands up and says 'Well, we don't support full repeal. We just want to see some changes.'"

Gaetz said he had opted against hearing the Antone bill because Antone "is unable to explain what it is that the [Senate] language does that keeps people safe."

Gaetz called the Senate bill "an exercise in style over substance." (The proposal requires guidelines for neighborhood watch programs. Sens. Chris Smith and David Simmons are also considering language that would allow bystanders to sue if they were injured by a person standing his or her ground.)

Said Gaetz: "My job is to put bills on the agenda for the Criminal Justice Subcommittee that are worthy of a debate that is worthy of the people of Florida... I don't support the Senate bill because I don't think it does anything."

Gaetz ended his remarks with an abrupt exit.

Later, House Democratic Caucus spokesman Mark Hollis responded to his claims.

"There is no reason to believe there's any inconsistency," Hollis said. "Leader Thurston wants the House to be more like the Senate."