By Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida lawmakers will hold hearings this fall on the state's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law, which has become a lightning rod for criticism following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
The announcement on Friday by Will Weatherford, the speaker of Florida's House of Representatives, marked the biggest concession yet by the state's Republican leaders to protesters' demands for a top-to-bottom review of the law, which allows people in fear of serious injury to use deadly force to defend themselves rather than retreat.
Since Zimmerman's acquittal on July 13, Martin's grieving parents, backed by African-American civic leaders, celebrities, students and political figures, including President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, have all said the Stand Your Ground law needs to be re-examined.
Weatherford, in an opinion column published in the Tampa Tribune, said he had asked Representative Matt Gaetz, a fellow Republican who chairs the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, to lead the hearings. Weatherford did not set a date for the hearings or say how long they would last.
"Across Florida, representatives are receiving calls, letters, visits and emails from constituents with diverse opinions on 'Stand Your Ground,'" Weatherford said. "Passions are high, but every person has the right to express their views on this matter of great importance."
"It's a critical step," said Phillip Agnew, who heads a group of young demonstrators calling themselves the Dream Defenders who have staged a nearly month-long sit-in outside Governor Rick Scott's office in a bid to change the law. "We're excited about having an open debate," he told Reuters.
Advocates of the law, the first of its kind in the country and now copied in more than 20 other states, say violent crime has fallen since it was enacted.
But critics see the self-defense law as emblematic of racial bias and unequal justice in America, since some studies have shown that defense claims made under the law are far more likely to be successful when the victim is black.
Two of the six jurors in the Zimmerman case have said the Stand Your Ground law left them with no option but to acquit him.
"Our evaluation of its (the law's) effectiveness should be guided by objective information, not by political expediency," Weatherford wrote.
"Does the law keep the innocent safer? Is it being applied fairly? Are there ways we can make this law clearer and more understandable?" he asked.
Most U.S. voters support the "Stand Your Ground" laws, although the question of whether to retreat or use deadly force in self defense divides Americans along gender, racial and political lines, a national Quinnipiac University poll found on Friday.
The poll found that a strong majority of white voters and men support the laws, while black voters generally oppose them and women are almost evenly divided.
(Reporting by Tom Brown; additional reporting by Bill Cotterell editing by Jackie Frank)