On Thursday afternoon, the Florida House Criminal Justice Committee is scheduled to begin hearings on the applications and consequences of the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law—hearings that were precipitated in large part by the worldwide outrage the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent exoneration of shooter George Zimmerman. Among other things on the agenda, the Florida committee will consider a bill that would repeal “stand your ground.” But you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for the bill to pass. It’s highly unlikely that HB 4003 will get through the committee, and if you want to know why, you need to get to know the fellow who will chair the committee hearings.
Meet Matt Gaetz, who, depending on your point of view, is either one of the country’s bravest or most appalling state legislators. Gaetz, a 31-year-old attorney from northwest Florida, has been in the Florida House of Representatives since 2010, and has quickly developed a reputation for pugnacity. He runs a lively Twitter feed, posting in a voice the Miami Herald recently described as “part commentary, part GOP and FSU fanboy, and part insult comic.” The insults are generally directed toward former governor Charlie Crist and random poor people, as in this gem from October: “Yesterday I saw a lady at Publix use her ’Access’ welfare card. Her back was covered in tattoos. RT if u support entitlement reform.”
His legislative record is just as blunt. As Michael Van Sickler recently wrote in a piece jointly published by the Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, Gaetz “has sponsored (and passed) some of the most conservative legislation in a conservative-dominated Legislature. His bills have fined local governments $5 million if they impose any restrictions on guns, banned insurance policies created through Obamacare from offering abortion coverage, and expedited death row cases so executions could be moved up.” Gaetz appeared especially proud of that last bill, which has helped put Florida on pace to execute seven convicts in 2013—the second-highest yearly total in state history. “Only God can judge, but we sure can set up the meeting,” Gaetz said at the time. If that’s not on a bumper sticker yet, it should be.
As you may have guessed from the rest of his political positions, Gaetz is an avowed fan of “stand your ground.” In August, he informed the media that he opposed “changing one damn comma” of the existing statutes. He went on to say that “the only voices on ‘stand your ground’ are coming from the radical left,” and that he welcomed “an opportunity to give a full-throated defense of the law.”
While Gaetz insists that HB 4003 will get a fair hearing, putting this guy in charge of the “stand your ground” hearings is sort of like appointing Jenny McCarthy to chair a committee on childhood vaccinations. Indeed, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford’s decision to put Gaetz in charge here seems like a deliberate maneuver aimed at those presumptuous outsiders who would dare to tell Floridians how to run their state.
And that’s the entire point. The world might cringe at “stand your ground,” but Florida Republicans like it just fine, and today’s hearings exist primarily to show the world just how little its opinions matter. In August, the Orlando Sentinel called the whole exercise “a committee hearing with a foregone conclusion,” and that conclusion is this: “Stand your ground” is great, reform is unwarranted, and the world’s moral outrage means absolutely nothing to bombastic fanboys like Matt Gaetz and his pals in the Florida legislature.