Florida legislators are pushing ahead with a bill designed to make it clear people can show a gun, or even fire a warning shot, without drawing a lengthy prison sentence.
The legislation was partially inspired by the case of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who was given a 20-year prison sentence after firing a gun near her estranged husband during an argument. Alexander's conviction was thrown out by an appeals court and she is scheduled to have a new trial this year.
A similar bill was proposed last year, but it went nowhere. But with increased attention to Alexander's case and Florida's gun laws, the measure is moving ahead. A Senate committee on Wednesday voted in favor of the bill (SB 488) while a House committee has also voted in favor of similar legislation (HB 89).
Both bills would grant the same protections already in place under Florida's "stand your ground" law to people who only threaten to use force. It would make sure that people who show a gun would be immune from Florida's "10-20-Life" law, which requires anyone who shows a gun while committing certain felonies to be sentenced to 10 years in prison. If someone is shot and wounded, the sentence increases to 25 years to life. The law, implemented in 1999, has been credited with helping to lower Florida's violent-crime rate.
Marion Hammer, who represents the National Rifle Association, told legislators that while the gun rights group supported the sentencing law, it is being used to prosecute people who are "exercising self-defense."
She said the "10-20-Life" law was intended to stop sentence reductions and plea deals for "gun-wielding criminals."
Florida's prosecutors are not opposing the bill, but that did not prevent a testy exchange between State Attorney Bill Cervone and bill sponsor Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, over the legislation.
Cervone objected to anecdotes used during the committee hearing about prosecutors going after Floridians who brandished a gun.
Cervone, who represents the judicial circuit that includes Gainesville, told legislators they were "only hearing from folks who are one side of this."
He said if someone is in prison, it was after a jury and judge rejected the claim of "self-defense."
That drew a stern rebuke from Evers, who told Cervone that the bill "speaks loudly" and says "this Legislature will not put up with folks who are using their lawful right to display a gun or fire a warning shot." Evers then recounted a story about a 74-year-old retired man in the Panhandle who was given a sentence because he had a shotgun visible.
Cervone said a better approach may be to remove aggravated assault from the list of offenses that draws a mandatory minimum sentence.
Some Senate Democrats said they still have concerns about the legislation. Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he wants to make sure that legislators don't go too far and start "encouraging people" to show or shoot firearms. Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said legislators should instead give more discretion to judges instead of changing the state's gun laws.