By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The Florida Legislature has set its sights on a slew of bills being pushed by gun advocates during this legislative session, which began this week.
So far, four gun bills are working their way through committees.
The first bill, commonly known as the “warning shot” bill, is now being scheduled for a final floor vote. If passed, the bill would allow law-abiding Floridians to show a gun and even fire “warning shots” in self-defense without facing steep prison time. Under current law, someone can be locked up for 20 years for armed aggravated assault for firing a warning shot in Florida.
Proponents of the measure, including the National Rifle Association, say it would plug a hole in Florida’s Stand Your Ground law that exposes people to lengthy prison sentences for brandishing and firing a weapon at an assailant threatening to attack them.
Current law gives people the right to use deadly force without retreating to protect themselves from imminent deadly danger or great bodily harm. The bill would amend the state’s justifiable-use-of-force statutes so that they apply to threats of force as well.
“Threatening to use deadly force to stop a violent attack is not aggravated assault,” Marion Hammer, a veteran NRA lobbyist in Florida, told the Tampa Tribune. “It’s self-defense,” she said.
For years now, Florida has been under scrutiny for its sweeping self-defense laws. The state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law received national attention during two big criminal trials in which two older white men gunned down two teenage black men, claiming self-defense.
This latest “warning shot” bill is a response to the prosecution of a woman from Jacksonville currently facing 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her estranged husband who was allegedly attacking her.
Gun control advocates, and others, are not happy about the bill.
According to The Orlando Sentinel, “Mark O’Mara, who previously defended George Zimmerman, wrote a guest column in the Orlando Sentinel calling the bill “a bad law designed to fix a bad law,” saying it would promote the misuse of firearms.”
The NRA is also backing a bill dubbed the “Pop Tart Bill.”
According to The Miami Herald, the Florida’s NRA affiliate “is supporting a proposal that would prevent children from being disciplined for playing with simulated weapons in school.”
That includes “brandishing a partially consumed pastry or other food,” according to the bill.
The language refers to a Maryland boy who was suspended for chewing his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun. He was later given lifetime membership to the National Rifle Association.
The Florida bill would protect schoolchildren who play with imaginary guns, miniature toy guns and toy guns made of snap-together building blocks.
Children would also be free to draw pictures of guns, or hold their pencils as if they were firearms. They could still get in trouble, however, if their play disrupts class or hurts a fellow student or teacher.
And then there’s a bill that is aimed at increasing penalties against insurers that discriminate against gun owners.
Bill sponsor Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, said that H.B. 255, which originated as a committee bill in the Insurance and Banking Subcommittee, is needed because some insurance companies that practice in Florida have shown interest in raising the issue of gun ownership in regard to policies in the state and have made it an issue in some instances in other states.
“I think that we should have the Office of Insurance Regulation overseeing the conduct of our insurers if they are discriminating against our citizens and, I think, as an additional safeguard, we ought to vest in our citizens of our state, in the insureds of our state the right to be able to ripen that issue and achieve relief if the Office of Insurance Regulation is in fact not doing the enforcement that they ought to do,” Gaetz said.
The bill would do that by amending the insurance laws to say that it is an unfair discriminatory practice for insurance companies issuing personal lines of property or auto insurance to discriminate on the basis of firearm ownership. An amendment passed Wednesday would add ammunition possession.
The bill also bars an insurance company from disclosing an insured’s or applicant’s gun ownership to third-party or affiliated entities without consent or showing need. The bill does allow for an insurance company to charge a supplemental premium if the value of the owned firearms exceeds the standard policy coverage, according to a legislative staff analysis of the bill.
The most recent bill passed through its second House committee this week. If passed, the bill would “extend carry-and-conceal privileges to all Florida gun owners when a state of emergency is declared, regardless of whether or not they have been issued a permit,” the Associated Press reports.
According to the AP:
The legislation is designed to allow citizens to take their firearms with them when forced to leave their homes due to hurricanes or other evacuation-related emergencies. The Governor must declare a state of emergency for the provision to be activated.
Many Floridians bring all of the valuables they can carry when forced to vacate their homes. Weather can destroy the residence and the valuables inside, or looters may become a problem during a chaotic period.
While gun advocates applaud lawmakers for making the state a more gun-friendly place, gun control advocates say the state has become testing ground for dangerous laws.
Brian Malte, who is a senior national-policy director for The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told The Orlando Sentinel, “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.”