The Republican-controlled Florida House on Thursday is expected to pass the first significant revisions to the state’s self-defense laws since the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
Legislators are expected to vote for a bill that would let people fire warning shots and avoid the state’s strict mandatory minimum sentences for using a gun.
The legislation was partially inspired by the case of Marissa Alexander. The Jacksonville woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a shot at her estranged husband. An appeals court has ordered her to have a new trial.
Sponsors of the bill argue that it would allow someone to use the state’s “stand your ground” defense in cases where they either shoot their gun to warn someone or even if they just show the gun. The “stand your ground” law now allows someone to use deadly force if they believe their life is in danger.
“Our goal with this legislation is to strengthen the ‘stand your ground’ law,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz and one of the backers of the warning-shot bill.
The House gave tentative approval to the bill (HB 89) Wednesday. The Florida Senate is scheduled to take up a similar bill Thursday.
The death of Martin, an unarmed teenager, sparked protests and debate about Florida’s “stand your ground” law. This past summer a group of protesters spent 31 nights in the Florida Capitol after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Martin’s death.
Zimmerman did not ask for a “stand your ground” hearing, but he said he shot Martin in self-defense. Portions of the “stand your ground” law were included in the jury instructions.
Some legislators questioned Gaetz about whether the warning shot bill went too far.
Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, asked whether or not someone could fire “100 warning shots” and still avoid criminal prosecution. Gaetz countered that if someone acted in a reckless manner they would get arrested.
Gaetz also would not answer directly whether the bill would have helped Alexander.
Alexander tried to assert a “stand your ground” defense but a judge rejected her claim. She was sentenced under Florida’s “10-20-life” law that has mandatory sentences for using a gun.
That law requires that anyone who shows a gun in the commission of certain felonies gets an automatic 10 years in prison. Fire the gun, and it’s an automatic 20 years. Shoot and wound someone, and it’s 25 years to life.
The House bill was amended Wednesday to create a process that would allow someone who successfully uses a “stand your ground” defense to have their records expunged.
The Tampa Bay Times in 2012 relied on records and media reports to do an analysis of how the law had been applied in Florida cases.
Gaetz said that he wasn’t making the change because of the newspaper series.
“The point is to ensure that someone who appropriately uses a ‘stand your ground’ defense doesn’t have their life ruined by the use of that defense,” Gaetz said.
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.