TAMPA - State House Speaker Will Weatherford says he'll ask a House committee to hold a hearing this fall on the state's controversial Stand Your Ground law. Weatherford's announcement, made in an opinion column published in The Tampa Tribune on Friday, is the first concrete move by the Republican majority in the Legislature toward considering changing the law, which has generated protests in the state's Capitol and calls from some Democrats for a special session of the Legislature to modify or repeal it. The law also has drawn criticism of Florida among gun control and civil rights advocates nationwide, but Republicans and gun rights advocates have stanuchly defended it. Weatherford, whose position as speaker makes him the most powerful member of the state House, said he'll ask Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach to hold a hearing on the law this fall.
That's not guaranteeing any changes, however. "I don't expect that the Legislature's going to move one damn comma," Gaetz said. Gaetz, who holds his chairmanship by Weatherford's appointment, said he'll hold the requested hearing and is working with committee member Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, on the schedule and format. Legislative committee meetings in anticipation of the 2014 session begin the week of Sept. 23. As chairman, Gaetz has the power to allow or prevent a vote on any legislation filed with his committee. He said he allows bills he opposes to be heard and voted on and won't attempt to bottle up revisions to Stand Your Ground. "If the members of the committee support changes, they will be proposed, but nobody can count on my vote," he said. House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he considers the hearing "a good first step." "I'd like to see (Weatherford) place some more urgency on the matter," he said. "I still maintain that a special session is necessary and warranted under the circumstances." He said such a session should include "a holistic review of our criminal justice system," starting with Stand Your Ground but including the death penalty and other issues. Asked about Gaetz's response, Thurston said it will only cause more criticism of Florida. "That type of attitude is why we have the people of the state protesting," he said. "It will only continue to fuel those who are calling for actions that Florida doesn't really need, like boycotts and everybody arming themselves. Those voices will only get louder. The people of Florida deserve adult conversation about the issue." Weatherford, who wasn't in the Legislature when Stand Your Ground was passed in 2005, said in an interview earlier this week that he supports the law and doesn't see a need for changes but would consider them if prosecutors, police and judges expressed a unified opinion of the need. In his Tribune column, he wrote that the Legislature should get "objective information" to answer the questions, "Does the law keep the innocent safer? Is it being applied fairly? Are there ways we can make this law clearer and more understandable?" Critics, however, say law enforcement spokesmen clearly opposed the law in 2005. "Law enforcement made their position well-known," Thurston said. "The last five years has even more cemented their position that there needs to be some changes to this law." The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association opposed the law in 2005 and during a task force review last year. The state associations of sheriffs and police chiefs took no position, but several prominent chiefs and sheriffs opposed it. The three state officials with the power to call a special session -- Weatherford, Gov. Rick Scott and state Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the father of Matt Gaetz -- have all said they oppose one, as do some Democrats. But Thurston and committee member Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, both applauded the "Dream Defender" protesters who have been occupying the state Capitol building, demanding changes in the law. The Stand Your Ground Law expands the legal basis for claiming self-defense in a killing, eliminating the legal requirement for a person who considers himself threatened to retreat when it is safely possible. [email protected] 813-259-7761