While civil-rights activists led by the Rev. Al Sharptonplan more marches, church vigils and rallies in Tallahassee and other state capitals to protest local gun-use laws, Smith is leading legislative attempts in Florida to roll back or change them. In the process, he has gotten plenty of national attention — including from Sharpton.
“Everybody has a role. I’m an activist and a civil-rights leader and a talk-show host,” Sharpton told the Sun Sentinel. “He is a legislator. I don’t expect him to call marches or host my show. He should legislate. He has played his role more effectively than anybody I’ve seen.”
The slaying of Martin has given many lawmakers a cause and a platform. Few, if any, have been more active or visible than Smith, 42, of Fort Lauderdale, who will become head of the Democratic minority in the Florida Senate after the November election.
“For me personally, it’s nothing that I sought out — I’m incoming leader,” Smith said in an interview. “I’m supposed to be traveling around raising money. It kind of threw my summer off, but it’s something that I needed to go off and do.”
Martin, a Miami Gardens 17-year-old, was shot dead in February, but it was almost a month before the national media descended on the Central Florida town of Sanford where the slaying took place. When they did, it thrust Florida, its firearms laws and its elected leaders into a glaring spotlight.
“It’s funny that his case lay dormant for so long,” Smith said. “Nobody really knew about the case, but once people started hearing about it, it’s actually making some fundamental changes.”
Along with some of his fellow black lawmakers, Smith has become one of the loudest voices calling for the rollback of controversial Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and 22 other states that allow people who feel threatened in the street or most other public places to use deadly force to defend themselves.
When police arrived at the scene in Martin’s case, George Zimmerman told them he shot Martin out of self-defense, and was released after questioning. Zimmerman was arrested on charges of second-degree murder after an outside prosecutor got involved.
The police’s decision led to accusations of racism — Martin was black, Zimmerman is a white Hispanic — and eventually, around-the-clock attention to the case on cable news networks. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited Smith to be part of a news conference in Washington on gun laws. U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, who represents the district where Martin lived, testified at a U.S. Senate hearing on racial profiling.
“All eyes are on Florida,” Wilson said.
To examine the state’s Stand Your Ground law, Smith organized an independent task force of law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys. The group is due to release its findings this week. Smith said he plans to present the report to Gov. Rick Scott and to a rival task force that Scott has formed.