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Legislative Preview Series: "Warning Shot Bill"

gunnewsdaily.com via Wikimedia Creative Commons

A bill granting immunity to Floridians who threaten deadly force in the name of self-defense continues to push ahead. The House Judiciary Committee recently voted to pass the so-called “Warning Shot Bill.” The measure has gained attention and momentum across the state since the high-profile Jacksonville case of Marissa Alexander. 

The bill making its way to the full Florida House extends the same protections granted under the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws to those who only threaten the use of force. Under a current state law commonly known as “10-20-Life,” having a gun while committing certain crimes is punishable by at least 10 years. If the weapon is fired, it’s 20."I think most people don’t currently understand that if you fire a warning shot at or in the direction of somebody, you have committed a felony, that warning shot is punishable by 20 years in prison", said Rod Sullivan, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law.

He says it was the case of Marissa Alexander,who was sentenced to 20 years for firing a gun into a wall during a dispute with her husband, that garnered widespread attention to the so-called warning shot bill.

"It addresses the concerns of Democrats who think that Marissa Alexander was wrongfully charged and it also addresses the concerns of Republicans", said Sullivan.

It’s not the first time legislators have proposed a bill like this. State Representative Neil Combee proposed a similar bill amending 10-20-Life in 2013 but it lacked enough support to survive. This time around, the bill seeks to amend “Stand Your Ground,” and its seeing growing support, even among those typically opposed to the state’s self-defense laws.

Aleta Alston-Toure heads the grassroots organization Free Marissa Now. Alston-Toure was on a panel of lawyers and advocates speaking out against “Stand Your Ground,” last week. But she says she supports Combee’s bill.

"The warning shot bill allows us to say that Marissa Alexander should have self-defense", Alston-Toure said. "She should be looked upon as any other domestic violence survivor".

The bill has made it’s way past the House Criminal Justice Committee and in January an identical Senate bill proposed by Senator Greg Evers passed in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Evers says while Alexander’s case may have played a small role in his support, it was the story of others in similar situations that spurred him, like that of 74-year-old retiree from the Panhandle.

"He actually pulled out his weapon and fired a warning shot to scare off some guys and he wound up with a 20 year sentence and took a three-year plea, so that was when my passion really got upset", said Evers.

The issue was briefly referenced during the recent murder trial of Michael Dunn in the death of Jordan Davis. During testimony, Dunn was asked by his attorney if he was aware that firing a warning shot was illegal in Florida. Dunn replied that he was. Evers says a bill in place could have made a difference.

"I think it’s very possible that there could have actually been two lives saved out of that situation", Evers said.

Assistant State Attorney Mark Caliel objects. The Jacksonville prosecutor says current state laws already protect individuals seeking to protect themselves.

"The law as it exists currently allows for the use of justifiable use of deadly force as a defense to brandishing a weapon", Caliel said.

The new bills seek to state that explicitly by including phrases such as “threatened use of force” and “defensive display.” But Caliel says they have the potential to make a bad situation worse.

"By creating this law and adding language and by calling it, for lack of a better term - I think it’s inappropriate to call it this way - the warning shot bill, you are emboldening people to brandish weapons or to fire warning shots, when they feel they are justified", argued Caliel.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on its version of the bill the first week in March.