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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
Editorials

Editorial: ‘Warning shot’ law not deserving of Scott’s signature

Published:

State lawmakers should be looking for ways to eliminate the ambiguities surrounding the “stand your ground” law, not adding to the ways the law might be used by those undeserving of its protections.

Yet a measure that passed the House and the Senate would expand the law in ways that will add to the confusion law enforcement officers face when confronted with these cases, and possibly put the lives of innocent bystanders at risk. The law also contains a provision that would allow some “stand your ground” court records to be sealed from public view, a bad idea.

The bill should not be signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

Called the “warning shot” bill, it was filed by Rep. Neil Combee, a Republican from Polk City, and is meant for people who might flash a gun, fire a warning shot or take some other non-lethal action in self-defense. Under current law, a person who fires a warning a shot or takes other non-lethal measures can face felony charges and a mandatory prison sentence. “Stand your ground” applies to lethal force.

A Jacksonville case has rallied Republicans and some Democrats behind the proposed changes. In that case, a woman claiming to be in fear for her life fired shots that hit a wall near her estranged husband and his children. She was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to the mandatory 20 years in prison, though an appeals court has ordered a new trial.

But whether the woman fired a warning shot in self-defense, or intended to shoot her estranged husband and missed, is unclear.

Supporters say the law isn’t meant to promote the firing of warning shots. It’s meant to eliminate an inequity in the law that punishes victims who scare away attackers rather than kill them.

We understand the intent, and we support the concept of “stand your ground.” People have a right to defend themselves. But the broad interpretations of the existing law often handcuff law enforcement and in some cases protect defendants who instigated a fight and then used deadly force to end it. Lawmakers should be tweaking the law to keep that from happening, not expanding it to incorporate another set of circumstances that are open to interpretation. And the state should be careful about giving the appearance of sanctioning warning shots, a dangerous practice that can injure or kill innocent bystanders.

Allowing certain “stand your ground” files to be expunged runs the risk of creating a favored class of defendants and might deprive the public from knowing the circumstances surrounding a “stand your ground” case.

Under the amendment added to the House version of the bill by Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Fort Walton Beach, those who invoke self-defense and are not prosecuted would have a simpler and cheaper path to having their cases expunged than other defendants now have.

Gaetz tells us that other measures being considered this legislative session would even the playing field for defendants trying to get their cases expunged. But that’s no comfort.

Lawmakers shouldn’t make it easier for court records to be sealed, particularly when they pertain to a law with as much public interest as “stand your ground.”

The public needs to know that “stand your ground” is clear and fairly applied, and that the circumstances surrounding its use will be available for public examination. This law is unnecessary and takes “stand your ground” in the wrong direction.

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