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Changing Florida's Stand Your Ground law a tough hill to climb

Supporters gather to join a candlelight vigil at the exact moment when teenager Trayvon Martin was shot one year ago by neighborhood watch v
Supporters gather to join a candlelight vigil at the exact moment when teenager Trayvon Martin was shot one year ago by neighborhood watch v

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Every night for the last three weeks about 50 young protesters have slept on the stone floor of Florida's state Capitol building in a bid to change the state's Stand Your Ground self-defense law.

Calling themselves "Dream Defenders", and inspired by the 1960s African-American civil rights movement, the protesters want to change a law they blame for the acquittal this month of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

Their nights of sleeping in blankets and living off fast food are unlikely to lead to a repeal or major reform of Stand Your Ground, political analysts say.

Such a move is virtually out of the question in Florida's Republican-dominated legislature, according to analysts.

"Gun rights are big, especially with the blue dog Democrats that Republicans need in Florida," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political scientist at Florida State University. "This law is not repealable. Certainly not by the present legislature."

"RETURN TO THE WILD WEST"

The Zimmerman case sparked a debate on Stand Your Ground legislation that in 2005 amended the statute governing Florida's self-defense law. The amendment allows a person in fear of serious injury to use deadly force to defend themselves rather than retreat. Jurors in Florida said the law left them no option but to acquit Zimmerman for the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.

Martin's grieving parents, backed by African-American civic leaders, students and politicians, including Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama, all say the Stand Your Ground law needs to be re-examined.

"By allowing — and perhaps encouraging — violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety," Holder told the convention of the NAACP earlier this month.

Some, including civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and singer Stevie Wonder, have gone further, calling for a boycott of Florida until the law is repealed.

Florida's self-defense law and the Zimmerman case are seen by many African Americans as emblematic of a lack of racial equality in the U.S. justice system. According to a study by the Tampa Bay Times, legal defense claims under Stand Your Ground were more likely to be successful when the victim was black.

Several groups, including the Martin family, say they are working on drawing up a Trayvon Martin Law to more narrowly define self-defense in cases that involve racial profiling.

The Dream Defenders - who have been joined in their nightly protest by the likes of activist/entertainer Harry Belafonte - say they won't leave until Florida Governor Rick Scott calls a special legislative session on the Stand Your Ground law.

Scott, a firm supporter of the law, is standing his ground and has rejected their demand after meeting them.

"This is just one tactic we have, focusing on the governor's office," said Phillip Agnew a young union activist from Miami who is the leader of the group. "We are also contacting legislators in their districts."

The National Bar Association, which represents African-American lawyers and judges, threw its weight behind the initiative on Monday and called for Scott to hold a special legislative session to review the Stand Your Ground law.

"Quite simply. You've given a license to kill, to shoot first and ask questions later. It's a return to the Wild West and Dodge City," said the association's president, John Page.

LAW'S SPONSOR TELLS FEDS "LEAVE US ALONE"

Florida became the first state in the country to adopt a Stand Your Ground law when it passed in 2005 with resounding bipartisan approval from Florida legislators, including some leading Democrats who now outspokenly oppose it.

Polls show the law still enjoys strong support in Florida and at least 21 states have since adopted similar laws, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

Inspired by an outbreak of looting after a string of Florida hurricanes Florida in 2004, the law was meant to protect law-abiding citizens from prosecution for stopping a violent attack.

The law's leading sponsor says he has no regrets about the legislation despite the public outcry. Dennis Baxley, a conservative Republican state representative and staunch supporter of the National Rifle Association, said recent remarks by the president and Holder questioning the law were misplaced.

"It's not a federal issue and they need to leave us alone," Baxley, 60, told Reuters.

Advocates of the law say violent crime has fallen in the state since it was passed. At the same time, justifiable homicides in Florida have climbed to a record 66 cases in 2012 from an annual average of 13 between 2001 and 2005, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

After the Martin shooting, bills were introduced in Florida to repeal or scale-back the self-defense statute, but none even got a committee hearing.

Whatever happens in the legislature, Stand Your Ground is likely to remain a hot political issue headed into the 2014 electoral season. Democrats and Republicans are likely to make gun control and self-defense core issues, said Susan MacManus, a Tampa political scientist at the University of South Florida.

"One thing is for sure is that it's an issue that's not going to die down soon," she added.

(Additional reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by David Adams and Andrew Hay)

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