By Tom Brown
FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida must either repeal its "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law or enact sweeping changes to avert more tragedies like the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, Democratic leaders of the state's legislature said on Thursday.
A Seminole County jury on Saturday acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter, with one juror citing Stand Your Ground as a factor in reaching her legal conclusion that Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, acted in self-defense.
The Zimmerman verdict demonstrated the ramifications of the 2005 law, Florida Senate Democratic leader Chris Smith said.
"This bill actually encourages people to shoot their way out of situations and that's not how we live in a civilized society," Smith told a news conference. "It's a mentality that has permeated the state of Florida. It's a mentality of shoot first, and we should not have that in a civilized society."
Smith was joined by Florida House Democratic leader Perry Thurston. Both called for a special session of the state's Republican-dominated legislature to overhaul the law or consider doing away with it.
Unless Florida lawmakers act quickly, calls for a boycott of the state like the one voiced by Motown legend Stevie Wonder are likely to grow as part of a mounting backlash, they warned. Civil rights groups also are calling for changes in the law.
With the state legislature in recess, Republican Governor Rick Scott would need to convene a special legislative session.
Dozens of young demonstrators have been occupying part of Scott's office in the Florida capital, Tallahassee, since Tuesday to press demands that he order the state's lawmakers back to work to toss out or modify the law.
Scott said he met with leaders of the sit-in demonstration for the first time on Thursday night, but he indicated he had no plans to call a special session.
The governor stressed, however, that the demonstrators had a "right to share their views with their state legislators and let them know their opinions on the law."
Smith and other lawmakers tried to get the Stand Your Ground law changed in the past legislative session in Tallahassee but failed to get a committee hearing on the issue.
After the Martin shooting, Scott appointed a task force to examine the statute. The task force held seven hearings around the state before recommending to keep the law despite many calls for it to be repealed or amended.
"Tonight, the protesters again asked that I call a special session of the legislature to repeal Florida's Stand Your Ground law. I told them that I agree with the Task Force on Citizen Safety, which concurred with the law," Scott said in a statement.
Smith and Thurston said a ballot initiative was likely if the legislature failed to change the law, voicing confidence that public outrage over the verdict would help generate enough signatures to place the matter on the ballot.
According to the instructions given to the jury, Zimmerman had "no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force" if he reasonably feared for his life or great bodily harm.
Though the Stand Your Ground law was not specifically cited as part of the defense mounted by Zimmerman's lawyers, Smith said the jury instructions that helped pave the way for his acquittal came directly from the statute.
Smith and Thurston were joined at their news conference by Broward County State Attorney Michael Satz, who said he and other law enforcement officials supported calls for an urgent overhaul of the Stand Your Ground law.
"I think putting in the statute that you do not have the duty to retreat is a mistake. I think life is precious and before you do that you should do everything in your power not to do that and to retreat if you possibly can," Satz said.
"Before there was a common law duty that you had to retreat before you used deadly force," he added. "I just don't think you need the Stand Your Ground statute."
The Florida statute was adopted under former Republican Governor Jeb Bush. Many other states, acting with broad support from the National Rifle Association, have followed Florida's lead over the last seven years.
(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Daniel Trotta, Matthew Lewis and Eric Beech)