After Fiery Debate, ‘Warning Shot’ Bill Passes House

By  //  March 21, 2014

Expands Stand Your Ground Law

gun-180TALLAHASEE, FLORIDA — After a nearly two-hour debate that focused on Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, the state House on Thursday easily passed a bill that would expand the self-defense law to include threatened use of force — including showing a gun or firing a warning shot.

The measure (HB 89) by Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, would extend immunity to people who threaten to use force in self-defense — the same immunity already in law for those who actually shoot people in response to perceived threats.

It passed in a 93-24 vote after a floor debate filled with the names of people associated with gun-related crimes that sparked public outrage in Florida, especially Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who faces the possibility of 60 years in prison for firing a shot into the wall during a domestic dispute.

The proposal has become known as the “warning shot” bill, although Combee said Thursday that people who call it that “do a terrible disservice to the general public if they put the notion out that this bill somehow or other authorizes or encourages warning shots, because it does not. We specifically did not put ‘warning shot’ in the bill.”

The omission of those words bothered Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, who questioned how HB 89 would have helped Alexander.

Dennis Baxley
Dennis Baxley

Most of the debate Thursday, however, centered on an amendment by House Minority Leader Perry Thursday, D-Fort Lauderdale, that sought to repeal the “stand your ground” law. While Democrats and Republicans went back and forth about the law, few of the arguments were new.

“I thought we had this settled,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who sponsored the House version of “stand your ground” in 2005. The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee in November rejected a bill (HB 4003) by Rep. Alan Williams to repeal “stand your ground.”

Thurston filed the amendment, he said in an email before the vote, because under the law, “Innocent people have been killed and the perpetrators have been able to walk away. … ‘Stand your ground’ encourages citizens to use force if they ‘feel’ threatened even if no real threat exists.”

Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, pointed to black mothers who warn their teenage sons, “Be careful, because a black boy’s life is not as valuable.”

The law “may work for your community, but it’s not working for ours,” Fullwood, an African American, said to other House members.

Rep. Matt Gaetz
Rep. Matt Gaetz

But Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who famously vowed that “not one damn comma” of the law would be changed, took issue with such arguments by the law’s opponents.

“In 90 percent of the cases where there is an African American decedent, the shooter — or killer — is also African American,” Gaetz said. “While African Americans constitute about 17 percent of the population in the state of Florida, they account for over 31 percent of assertions of the ‘stand your ground’ defense. …And African Americans are 8 percent more likely to prevail when asserting a ‘stand your ground’ defense than Caucasians.”

He said a wider sample size, not a handful of cases that have attracted attention, would show no racial disparity under the law.

Thurston’s amendment failed in an 83-31 vote.

The final version of Combee’s bill contained an amendment, passed Wednesday, that would limit access to court records in self-defense cases. The amendment, filed by Gaetz, would allow people found to have used justifiable force in a “stand your ground” hearing to have their court records expunged.

The Senate version of the bill (SB 448) could be approved next week.

While Combee’s bill drew heavy debate, another gun-related bill with a distinctive nickname — the “Pop-Tart” bill — passed in minutes by a vote of 98-17. Sponsored by Baxley, the proposal (HB 7029) would prevent children from being disciplined for simulating guns while playing or for wearing clothes that depict firearms. It draws its nickname from a widely reported news story about a Maryland 7-year-old who was suspended from school last year for chewing his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun.

The bill attracted bipartisan support in the House from Democrats, who are often critical of “zero tolerance” school discipline policies, and from gun-friendly Republicans.