‘Warning Shot’ Bill Heads to Governor

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TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — The Florida Senate on Thursday approved a proposal that has become known as the “warning shot” bill, which would allow people to show guns and fire warning shots if they feel threatened.

The House also has approved the bill, which is now ready to go to Gov. Rick Scott. The Senate passed the House measure (HB 89) by a vote of 32-7.

The bill would add immunity for threats to use force to Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense law.

Combee

Rep. Neil Combee

Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Greg Evers, a Baker Republican who sponsored the bill, said it “fixes a problem with the inappropriate 10-20-Life sentences when law-abiding citizens are defending themselves. The current law does not regulate the threatened use of force. This bill does just that.”

Under the 10-20-Life law, possessing a gun while committing certain crimes is punishable by at least 10 years in prison, discharging a gun while committing those crimes is punishable by at least 20 years in prison, and hurting or killing someone during those crimes is punishable by 25 years to life in prison.

The House sponsor of HB 89, Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, has said the bill was inspired by the case of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison under 10-20-Life for firing a warning shot during a domestic dispute.

Combee’s attempt last year to tweak 10-20-Life to allow threats of force in self defense failed due to opposition from law enforcement. This year, instead, he turned to “stand your ground” — with apparent success.

State Senator Chris Smith

State Senator Chris Smith

Senate Democrats tried to amend the bill to require the state to keep open records of cases in which the law is used.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, offered the amendment, which would have removed a provision in the House bill that would allow records to be expunged if people who claim “stand your ground” are found innocent.

Smith said keeping open the records would make the law’s success or failure easier to track.

“If it’s being used incorrectly, you can make changes,” Smith said.

“We need this information to set the right policies going forward,” agreed Sen. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat. “What are we afraid of, to have the right information, so that if we do need to adjust the law, we’ll have the information we need?”

But Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican and a former Citrus County sheriff, said people who are forced to defend themselves shouldn’t have a criminal record as a result.

“If you’re innocent, that automatically should expunge your name, and you shouldn’t have to defend your name the rest of your life,” Dean said.

Smith’s amendment failed on a voice vote.

The debate touched on several high-profile Florida incidents that involved guns, including the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin in Sanford and Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, both in 2012.

Sen.  John Thrasher

Sen. John Thrasher

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, who voted against the original “stand your ground” law as a House member in 2005, recalled that at the time, she predicted it would “open Pandora’s box and in that box would be death for someone — not realizing that my words at that time were prophetic, because it has happened.”

Joyner blamed the war on drugs of the Reagan era for several tough-on-crime laws “that have outlived their usefulness.”

But Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, noted that he was the House speaker in 1999, when the Legislature passed the 10-20-Life and “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” laws, which cracked down on Florida felons.

“I am told by the law enforcement people that those laws have actually affected the amount of serious crime in the state of Florida, and it’s actually come down from 1999 to today,” Thrasher said.

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