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Gun bills take the stage in Florida Legislature

5:48 AM, Mar 3, 2014   |    comments
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TALLAHASSEE - Florida's gun-friendly nature will be scrutinized during the 2014 legislative session as bills that would modify the state's Stand Your Ground law and another allowing warning shots will be considered, a marked contrast from the 2013 session in which no major gun legislation was passed.

Several prominent shootings that have drawn national attention to Florida's gun laws have sparked the bills, which will be considered after the Legislature convenes Tuesday. There was the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had been accused in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. There was the case of Marissa Alexander, who received 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband.

In another case, Michael Dunn was recently found guilty of second-degree attempted murder after shooting into a car full of teenagers in Jacksonville, killing Jordan Davis.

And finally, former Tampa police officer Curtis Reeves is in jail awaiting trial after he shot and killed Chad Oulson during an argument over texting in a movie theater. He is charged with second-degree murder but is claiming self-defense.

The parents of Martin and Davis are scheduled to meet with legislators March 10 to address the Stand Your Ground law and how they think it should be changed. That law says people who are not involved in illegal activity have the right to stand their ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if they reasonably believe it was necessary to avoid death or great bodily harm.

"It's critical that the Legislature take a look at what the country and the world is looking at Florida and recognize that we don't look good right now as it relates to Stand Your Ground, as it relates to self-defense laws that we have on the books," said Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville. "We need to re-evaluate them. We need to make sure that we have laws on the books that are going to allow our young people to walk the streets doing those things that young people do and not have to worry about being killed as a result of it."

But Florida Republicans, who control the Legislature and the governor's office, firmly embrace the Stand Your Ground law. Any sweeping changes are likely to be blocked.

"I haven't seen any changes to Stand Your Ground that I think are necessary or that people have made a compelling case that would make a difference," said House Speaker Will Weatherford.

The Alexander case has spurred the development of what is being referred to as the 'warning shot' bill. Alexander says she fired a bullet at a wall in 2010 to scare off her husband when she felt he was threatening her. Her conviction was thrown out by an appeals court and a new trial scheduled.

Greg Evers, R-Baker, has sponsored the bill that more accurately addresses "10-20-life" in self-defense cases. Passed in 1999, the 10-20-life law requires lengthy sentences for specific felony firearm convictions. The judge who sentenced Alexander to 20 years felt he had no choice under the law.

The warning shot changes have the support of lobbyist and former National Rifle Association president Marion Hammer, who has Tallahassee's most-powerful voice on gun laws.

But opponents of the proposed changes worry they will cause more people to fire shots.

"You're telling people, 'I can shoot a warning shot,' " Sen. Christopher Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said. "The Legislature is telling me to shoot a warning shot. And that warning shot may not be in the air. ... To me, that's inviting negligence.

"I don't want to encourage people to shoot more."

Another prominent bill will be a Stand Your Ground tweak with a facet directly related to the Zimmerman trial. The bill is co-sponsored by David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Smith.

Local law enforcement would be required to provide guidelines for neighborhood watch volunteers such as Zimmerman. It would clarify that immunity under Stand Your Ground does not apply to injured innocent bystanders.

Smith is adamant about the intent portion of the bill that would give direction for what qualifies as a Stand Your Ground defense and what does not.

"We need to let judges know what is a Stand Your Ground case." Smith said. "The NRA has signed off on a lot of my intent language ... to give direction to judges what it should be used for and what it shouldn't be used for. I'm real confident we'll be getting something out for that.

Hammer also is pushing a bill to keep schools from punishing children pretending to play with guns or wearing clothes with pictures of firearms.

She and the NRA also backs legislation aimed to prevent insurance companies from discriminating against gun owners.

"You cannot discriminate against people for exercising a constitutional right," Hammer said. "It's that simple."

 

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