JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - 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 are acquitted, 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 meeting at Edward Waters College during the group's sixth and last public hearing.
Friday said the cost of a defense can be as much as $20,000.
Marion Hammer of the National Rifle Association and Al Hammond of Unified Sportsmen of Florida planned to testify.
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.
"We're truly delving into what the issues are, what is impacting people, what the concerns are, both from law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, our citizens, our civic organizations, and really bring it all together so we can truly enhance and improve the law so we can protect law-abiding citizens," Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll said.
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 illegal and relieves them of a duty to retreat.
A defendant who invokes the stand your ground law can have a non-jury 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.
The task force will present its recommendations to the Florida Legislature next year.
Supporters of more restrictive gun laws criticized the task force for only having gun rights advocates testify during its last public hearing. Supporters of making Florida's law more restrictive, including Martin's parents, have testified at other hearings.
"I'm disappointed that many of the task force members seem disinterested in the growing body of evidence showing the dangerous impact of 'shoot first' laws across the country," 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. "The task force appears set to allow the gun lobby to shape their final recommendations without ever fully reviewing the studies that show these laws don't deter crime and do increase homicide rates."
The next task force meeting is scheduled for Nov. 13 in Pensacola. That will likely be the last meeting before the board makes its recommendation to the governor and the state Legislature on the stand your ground law.
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