By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - A blue-ribbon task force on Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law formally recommended against repealing the statute, which is at the core of the legal defense in the fatal shooting last year of teenager Trayvon Martin.
Florida Governor Rick Scott appointed the task force to help allay a national furor over guns and race following the February 26, 2012, shooting of the 17-year-old black youth in Sanford, Florida.
Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch activist who said he thought the teenager was acting suspiciously in Zimmerman's gated community. Martin was unarmed and was walking back from a convenience store to the condominium where he was staying with his father.
"I met with Trayvon Martin's parents and our hearts go out to the entire family for their loss, especially as we approach the anniversary of his death," Scott said in releasing the recommendations of his 19-member Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection.
Zimmerman denied any racial motivation and said Martin was shot after attacking him and pounding his head against the pavement. Police initially released him under Florida's 2005 "Stand Your Ground" law, which says citizens do not have to try to retreat when a street confrontation turns dangerous, but may use deadly force if they reasonably believe there is danger of serious injury or homicide.
Zimmerman was later indicted on a second-degree murder charge and is to stand trial this summer.
The task force held seven hearings last year. Its recommendation to keep the law was not a surprise, although some state legislators have introduced bills to repeal it or to tighten rules for its use.
Critics say the make-up of the task force favored supporters of the Stand Your Ground law and failed to examine its negative consequences.
A rival task force set up by Florida Senate Democratic leader Chris Smith said the law helped fuel a culture of violence in the state and was often abused by criminals.
The task force recommendations were welcomed by gun supporters.
"I think this report is exactly as we anticipated," said Marion Hammer, a former president of the National Rifle Association who is the state's main gun lobbyist in Tallahassee. "There is nothing wrong with the law, except that it needs a few little tweaks."
Hammer's Unified Sportsmen of Florida lobbied to get the law passed eight years ago and is one of the most persistent and successful lobbying organizations in the state.
The task force did not judge the facts or circumstances of the Zimmerman case, but directed some relatively minor adjustments to the state legislature, which is due to begin its 60-day annual session on March 5.
The group's main finding was that "all persons who are conducting themselves in a lawful manner have a fundamental right to stand their ground and defend themselves from attack with proportionate force in every place they have a lawful right to be."
The panel recommended that lawmakers examine the definition of "lawful" activity, and seek uniformity in application of "Stand Your Ground."
Hammer said police and prosecutors in different jurisdictions have disagreed about the law's application. She said it is not meant to protect a drug dealer guarding a stash or a gang patrolling its turf, but only law-abiding citizens in their homes or on the streets.
The task force also recommended the legislature consider funding study of incidents of self-defense in which the Stand Your Ground law is raised, to include variables such as race, ethnicity, and gender, as well as a statistical comparison with other states.
State Representative Alan Williams, a Democrat from Tallahassee, said he still hopes to get legislative hearings and debate on his bill repealing the "Stand Your Ground" law. He said the task force recommendations are not binding on the House and Senate, even with the governor's backing.
"I'm disappointed that the task force came back with these recommendations and that Governor Scott has decided to move forward with them," Williams said. "As long as we do nothing, we are going to continue to have cases like Trayvon Martin's. I think this warrants debate."
Williams said the law "is not making our communities safer."
(Editing by David Adams and Dan Grebler)