Florida’s annual Second Amendment battle is underway in Tallahassee, highlighted by an NRA-backed bill that would let people fire warning shots when attacked.
The change would broaden the “stand your ground” law, which allows anyone in fear of death or serious injury to use deadly force against a suspected attacker.
If passed, brandishing a firearm and firing warning shots to scare away an attacker will be legal.
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Other bills introduced so far would make it easier to sue insurance companies that try to raise homeowners’ rates because of gun and ammunition ownership, and would let tax collectors’ offices process concealed-weapon permits. Even though Florida has issued more concealed-weapon permits than any other state – more than 1.2 million – backers want to make the process easier.
The warning-shot bill stems from the conviction of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot during an incident of alleged domestic violence. An appeal court overturned the conviction, and she faces a new trial.
“We’re trying to get some protection for the people who find themselves in a bad spot and don’t want to shoot somebody. Whatever we do here won’t change the circumstances of any case,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Neil Combee, a Republican. “As it stands right now in ‘stand your ground,’ you have to shoot somebody.”
Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chris Smith, a critic of the self-defense law and the new warning-shot provision, said, “It’s encouraging more violence, the same as ‘stand your ground’ encourages escalation rather than de-escalation of violence, by taking away the responsibility to try to retreat.”
Police departments across the U.S. prohibit firing warning shots, in part because stray bullets endanger bystanders.
Though proponents defend such bills as an ongoing effort to expand and protect the Second Amendment, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence characterized Florida as the National Rifle Association’s testing ground for new laws.
“It seems like throughout the years they’ve been using Florida as the legislative laboratory for what we would call the ‘guns anytime, anywhere, anyplace’ mantra,” said Brian Malte, the Brady Campaign’s senior national-policy director.
As examples, Malte cited Florida becoming in 1987 the first state to adopt a policy requiring the state to issue concealed-weapon permits unless there is a compelling reason not to; in 2005 it enacted the first “stand your ground” law; in 2008, it passed a law over employers’ objections to let employees store guns in their parked cars at work; and in 2011, it passed a law known as “Docs vs. Glocks” prohibiting physicians from asking patients whether they own guns.
The reason for such political victories is the state’s strongest interest group – gun owners – with hunters and enthusiasts in every county, according to Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist who has followed the Legislature for more than 25 years.
“Gun owners are in everybody’s district, and they can grab the attention of legislators. Not because of money but because they are very cohesive,” she said, noting a significant increase in supporters who don’t fall into traditional categories, including women who have heightened personal-security concerns.
“Every year there are two or three NRA bills, and they’re going to pass. The NRA is the most powerful lobby in Florida,” said Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. “They’re just doing victory laps now. They’ve gotten everything they wanted.”
That’s an exaggeration, said Marion Hammer, former president of NRA, founder of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida and the National Rifle Association’s Tallahassee lobbyist for more than 30 years.
“The media are always saying we always get what we want, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said Monday after providing the Sentinel with a list of six NRA-backed bills that failed last year.
Those included companion bills in the House and Senate that would have allowed school employees qualified as private-security officers to carry concealed firearms at work and also allow schools with zero-tolerance violence policies to decide what constituted a threat serious enough to notify law enforcement.
Hammer said the warning-shot bill “was not and is not a NRA bill, but we support it.”