By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Another bill expanding the use of guns for self-defense in Florida is now headed to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk for his signature.
The bill, which passed both chambers last week, allows anyone with a clean record to brandish a weapon or shoot a warning shot in self-defense without facing steep jail time. It would also seal court documents of people charged with firing a warning shot, but eventually have those charges dropped—which will make it difficult for journalists and academics to properly study the possible results of the law.
This warning shot bill is one of many NRA-backed gun bills expected to become law this year. Scott has said he supports gun-friendly legislation and is expected to sign this bill into law.
The legislation was inspired by the case of a Jacksonville woman named Marissa Alexander, who faces 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot in self-defense at her estranged husband.
According to The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald, Scott “supports the 2nd Amendment and Florida’s self-defense laws (and) looks forward to reviewing this legislation,” a spokesman for the governor said.
The bill passed by a 33-7 vote in the Florida Senate and even garnered a “nay” vote from a Republican, Sen. John Legg, of Trinity. A small group of Democrats voted against it, as well.
Democrats have warned that the state’s history of expanding self-defense laws has been checkered. In the past few years, the state’s gun laws—particularly its Stand Your Ground law—have received a lot of national attention and criticism.
The shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have spurred rallies in Tallahassee aimed at getting state legislators to take a second look at the law. However, GOP leaders in the state have stood by it, which makes any substantive changes to the law very unlikely.
Besides Republican lawmakers, a national poll found a majority of people still support Stand Your Ground.
This recent bill is controversial—mostly because it expands some aspects of Stand Your Ground.
The bill expands “stand your ground” by allowing those who are found to have used justifiable force to expunge court records related to the case, making them unavailable to the public.
Tacked on as an amendment late last month in the House by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, the public records exemption was added to the Senate version nearly three weeks earlier — on March 4. The idea came from Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, a former sheriff who first publicly asked for the records exemption during a Jan. 8 criminal justice committee meeting.
“Somewhere, we need to protect the innocent person’s record,” Dean said in January. “What part of innocence do we not understand? I feel that should be something we should include (in the bill) that would make sure the record is automatically expunged.”
But such records are crucial to understanding implications of the 2005 law. A 2012 Tampa Bay Times investigation reviewed 200 cases, including ones that wouldn’t be available under the new exemption, and found that the law was used inconsistently and led to disparate results.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale filed an amendment to remove the exemption, but it failed on a voice vote.
Besides limiting reporting, the provision could also limit academic work on “Stand Your Ground.” Many universities and think tanks have been looking into how Stand Your Ground is applied in real-life and what the implications are for the nearly two-dozen states that have similar laws on the books.