Stand your ground, gun bills move in Senate
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
TALLAHASSEE – Bills that expand gun rights and “stand your ground” protections won approval Tuesday in Senate committees, reigniting a heated debate over weapons and self-defense laws in Florida.
Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, a black teenager killed in Jacksonville in a 2012 dispute over loud music, urged the Senate Criminal Justice Committee to vote down SB 344.
The bill would reverse a Florida Supreme Court decision this summer declaring those claiming a “stand your ground” defense have the burden of proving they were in fear of their lives during a pre-trial hearing. It would instead put the onus on prosecutors to prove defendants weren't acting in self-defense.
“This adds an additional burden on the state to prove the innocence of the victims and the guilt of the shooters,” McBath said, noting that Michael Dunn had to be tried twice before he was convicted and sentenced to prison.
The bill passed the committee on a 4-1 vote, with Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, the dissenting vote.
With Republican support, Senate committees also approved two gun bills Tuesday. One would allow licensed gun owners to carry firearms openly in public places. The other would give concealed-weapons permit holders the right to carry guns on college campus.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, sponsor of the stand your ground measure, said he is trying to impose the original intent of the law passed in 2005, which declared a person doesn’t have a duty to retreat in the face of a physical threat.
“I happen to think who better to define legislative intent than the Legislature?” Bradley said.
McBath urged lawmakers to vote down the bill in the name of her son and Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager shot by George Zimmerman in Sanford the same year, a case that grabbed national headlines.
Zimmerman initially was not charged by Sanford police but was later arrested and acquitted of Martin’s slaying. He did not claim “stand your ground” immunity but argued he acted in self-defense.
The bill has kindled opposition from anti-gun activist groups such as the Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. But representatives of criminal defense attorney groups and public defender groups spoke in favor of the bill.
“[Prosecutors] should bear that burden of proof through the entire case,” said Stacy Scott, board member of the Florida Public Defender’s Association and the public defender for the 8th Circuit, which includes Gainesville.
Asked his position on the issue, a spokeswoman for Jeff Ashton, state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties, referred a reporter to the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. Attempts to reach the group’s general counsel Tuesday weren’t successful.
All of the bills are moving swiftly through the committee process ahead of the Legislature’s regular session, which begins in January.
Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith spoke in favor of the open-carry bill, saying he’d rather know who in a crowd is carrying a gun.
“Some people don’t like guns, I’m OK with that,’’ Smith said. “Get a can of wasp spray if it works for you.”
Other police groups oppose open carry, arguing it would make their jobs more dangerous.
Javier Ortiz, president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, referred to the Trayvon Martin case in arguing against the bill.
“Unfortunately, people want to be police officers like George Zimmerman. We don’t need George Zimmerman to walk around with firearms exposed,” Ortiz said.
The campus carry bill is opposed by some university presidents and campus police groups. But students from both sides of the issue also spoke for and against the bill Tuesday.
Sen. Gibson said she was worried about the cumulative effect that all of the gun bills would have on public safety.
Too much time is being spent on gun bills in the lead-up to the legislative session, she said.
“I think that’s all we’re doing this session,” Gibson said. “If you don’t have a gun bill, it’s not going anywhere.”
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