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Despite chance at revival, changes to Florida's "stand your ground" law won't be heard again


Revived efforts to change Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law are once again presumed dead for the 2016 session.

The "Hail Mary" pass for the legislation hinged on a Senate-approved bill getting consideration Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee. But the bill is not listed on the committee's agenda, which was released this afternoon.

The meeting is the panel's last scheduled gathering of the 2016 session.

Jacksonville Republican Rep. Charles McBurney, the House judiciary chairman, did not immediately return a voicemail seeking comment on why he chose not to take up the bill -- SB 344, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

Opponents -- including victims' family members, state attorneys and Democratic lawmakers -- had been mobilizing this week to kill SB 344, as they did the original House version, which stalled in the criminal justice committee last fall.

"We spent most of the floor session today -- some of my colleagues and I -- working the bill and it looked like we had the votes to kill it, quite frankly," Rep. David Kerner, D-Lake Worth, told the Herald/Times this afternoon.

Kerner -- who has led the opposition to gun bills under consideration this session -- said he kept McBurney informed of his efforts and "didn't ask him to do anything specific; I just wanted him to know where a lot of the members were on the committee."

The bill not being put on the agenda "could mean there wasn't support for the bill or leadership made a decision not to find out," Kerner said. "But whatever it is, it's a win for a lot of people. It's a win for victims, it's a win for prosecutors trying to do their job and it's a win for the community that just wants to be kept safe."

It's not a win for the National Rifle Association, which lobbied for the bill.

The "stand your ground" measure was among several gun-related proposals the NRA pushed for this session. All of the high-profile ones have died. (The other unsuccessful proposals included measures to change how and where concealed-weapons permit-holders could carry their weapons.)

SB 344 shifts the burden of proof in self-defense cases, requiring prosecutors to prove why a defendant could not claim the state's "stand your ground" law as a defense for their actions.

The law, adopted in 2005, allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives or property in certain circumstances, with no obligation to retreat or flee. "Stand your ground" cases can involve various uses of force, including instances of gun violence, domestic abuse and aggravated assault.

Republican lawmakers offered bills this session in response to a Florida Supreme Court ruling last summer that stated defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they’re entitled to that immunity. Bradley contended the justices “misinterpreted legislative intent” of the decade-old law, but their ruling was consistent with judicial precedence in lower courts.

Bradley's bill was amended in the Senate, so prosecutors would be subject to a lesser burden of proof than what the original House and Senate bills proposed.

State attorneys were nonetheless critical of the proposed shift, arguing it would force them to prosecute cases twice: once before a judge in a pre-trial hearing and again before a jury during trial. They argue the shift would've also burdened victims and their families, who would have been called to testify.

Calling it a "fair discussion to have," House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, referred the Senate-approved bill to the House Judiciary Committee this month -- a move that circumvented the House criminal justice committee's deadlocked vote in November that stalled the original House version.

"Our House rules allow us to put it back into committee," Crisafulli told reporters after today's session.

Phil Archer, the state attorney for the 18th Judicial Circuit -- which represents Crisafulli's home turf in Brevard and Seminole counties -- was among the opponents in Tallahassee this week urging lawmakers to kill the Senate bill.

"This has nothing to do with 'stand your ground,'" Archer told the Herald/Times today. "This would make for a very bad procedure and an impact, not only on state attorneys and judges, but on victims and witnesses."

Archer said he supports the self-defense law, is a lifelong NRA member and teaches a concealed-weapons class that includes a lesson on "stand your ground."

"The notion that my support of the Second Amendment is weakened by my opposition to this bill is nuts," Archer said.

Thursday's Judiciary hearing, by coincidence, falls on the day before the fourth anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old from Miami Gardens, was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford in 2012. (Zimmerman faced criminal charges but was later acquitted.)

Trayvon's name, as well as that of Jordan Davis, was invoked several times by Senate Democrats who voted to oppose the "stand your ground" bill when it cleared that chamber in January.

Lucia McBath -- mother of Jordan, a 17-year-old shot and killed at a Jacksonville gas station, also in 2012 -- had been planning to attend Thursday's hearing and testify if the Senate bill was taken up by the House Judiciary Committee.

Michael Dunn, the man who shot Jordan after confronting Jordan and his friends for blaring music too loudly from their SUV, cited Florida's "stand your ground" law in his defense. In October 2014, Dunn was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for Jordan's death and for shooting at three other teens in the vehicle.

McBath, who is now a faith and community outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement earlier this week: "It's an insult to anyone who's ever had a loved one taken by gun violence to expand Florida's 'stand your ground' law further than any law in the country at all, but especially on the anniversary of Trayvon Martin's death."