A Senate committee on Tuesday approved tweaks and clarifications to the "stand your ground" law that came under scrutiny after neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman fatally shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
The proposed changes would require the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to develop training guidelines for neighborhood watch groups that, among other things, addresses unlawful use of force and conduct that could create or escalate a confrontation.
The bill (SB 130) also makes it clear that law enforcement agencies should fully investigate any use of force even when a self-defense claim is used and adds language that clarifies that anyone who uses force against an attacker can still be responsible if they injure or kill an uninvolved bystander.
The bill would leave in place the bulk of the law that passed in 2005 that allows people to use deadly force if they are threatened.
"They are truly, truly small but truly, truly important revisions," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. "They're clarifications. They reaffirm the wisdom and the validity of this, but they also affirm the wisdom and the validity of the concerns that individuals ... have with respect to the interpretation."
The bill combines legislation filed by Simmons and Democratic Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved it 7-2. It has two more committee stops before it can be considered by the full Senate.
The Republican-led legislature would have been unlikely to approve widespread changes to the law. This bill stands a much better chance of advancing because it only addresses minor changes.
The stand your ground law was criticized after Zimmerman fatally shot 17-year-old Martin in the Orlando suburb of Sanford. Zimmerman, who claimed he was defending himself, was acquitted of second-degree murder in July. Days later protesters demanding changes to the stand your ground law began a 31-day sit-in at the Capitol.
Smith voted against the 2005 bill that created the law, and said that he still believes people should be required to retreat first, if possible, before using force against an attacker. But he said he worked with Simmons on areas where they can agree. Both senators attended hearings around the state to discuss the law.
"As we discussed stand your ground, we found that we have a lot of common ground," Smith said. "We found that we agreed way more than we disagreed."
Simmons said he wanted the bill to also clarify a provision of that law that states it doesn't apply in cases where illegal activity is occurring. Simmons says that the language is intended to keep drug dealers or others committing crimes from using the defense, but some people are interpreting it too broadly.
That includes the argument that parking violations are illegal, or that immigrants that entered the country illegally should not be able to use the stand your ground defense, Simmons said, adding that immigration status shouldn't be a factor in self-defense cases.