TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Legislation allowing people to fire a warning shot instead of retreating from the threat of death or bodily harm was overwhelmingly approved Thursday in the Republican-controlled Florida House, and the state Senate tentatively approved a similar bill.
The legislation was partially inspired by the case of Marissa Alexander. The Jacksonville woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she insisted was a warning shot during a fight with her estranged husband. An appeals court has ordered a new trial for her.
The bill (HB 89) addresses a law that requires lengthy sentences for specific felony firearm convictions. Lawmakers debated the legislation and a proposed amendment for over two hours, with most votes cast along party lines.
Rep. Kionne Magee, D-Miami, questioned the definition of warning shots and how many warning shots would be allowed under the bill. Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, pointed out that law enforcement officers are not routinely allowed to shoot warning shots.
"The reason I got interested in this was not because I wanted to do anything with "stand your ground,''' said Rep. Neil Combee, R-Auburndale, the bill's sponsor. "I didn't want to repeal "stand your ground.'' I didn't want to strengthen "stand your ground.''
"'Stand your ground' was not on my mind. Marissa Alexander was on my mind.''
Some Democrats had problems with "stand your ground,'' but believed the "warning shot'' bill was a step in the right decision.
Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Lecanto, said the bill is about common sense, that's it's better to shoot a warning shot than having to kill someone.
Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, sought unsuccessfully to amend the bill to make major changes to "stand your ground.'' The amendment would have gotten rid of some of the major provisions of "stand your ground,'' including alterations to duty to retreat.
Thurston explained that his amendment did not attempt to strengthen "stand your ground'' and if the law couldn't be changed then it should be repealed. Thurston has supported several protests recently aimed at changing "stand your ground.''
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and Thurston had a heated exchange for nearly a half hour. Thurston contended the bill would not have helped Alexander.
Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, asserted that "stand your ground'' has harmed African-Americans.
A commonly used example is the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who was accused and later acquitted in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. In another case, Michael Dunn was recently convicted of second-degree attempted murder after shooting into a car full of black teenagers. The jury deadlocked on a murder charge against him in the death of one of those teens, Jordan Davis, in Jacksonville.
Gaetz, however, contended that African-Americans account for over 31 percent of "stand your ground'' defenses despite being about 17 percent of the Florida population.
Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, who supports repealing "stand your ground'' said, "Don't make this about color, make this about what's right and wrong. Make this about life and death.''
The Senate tentatively passed its version of the bill Thursday and an amendment that brought it in line with the House version.
It is scheduled to be voted on the floor March 26.