Last week, a Florida court, in the wake of national outcry, granted a new trial to a woman sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot during a fight with her abusive husband. Marissa Alexander’s case became a lightning rod for a widespread sense of injustice over George Zimmerman’s acquittal under the state’s Stand Your Ground law in July. Under the guise of righting the wrong done to Alexander, Florida Republicans filed an NRA-backed bill to grant people who fire warning shots in self-defense immunity from Florida’s “10-20-Life” mandatory minimum sentencing law.
Though Alexander said she was acting in self defense against her husband by firing warning shots in the air, she did not qualify for the controversial Stand Your Ground defense. Instead, the judge had no choice but to hand down a 20-year sentence under the state’s mandatory minimum law. The 10-20-Life law, dreamed up by former Gov. Jeb Bush (R), dictates an automatic 10-year sentence if the defendant — including minors as young as 16 — pulls a gun while committing a felony, 20 years for firing a gun, and 25 to life for shooting someone. Alexander was charged with aggravated assault, a felony in the eyes of the law.
Florida Republicans’ solution is to expand gun defenses beyond the already broad Stand Your Ground, but they will not dismantle the mandatory minimums entirely. Florida House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley (R), who backs the new bill, still praised 10-20-Life to the Miami Herald. “10-20-Life has done so many wonderful things to help us lower the crime rate,” Baxley said. “So we have to be cautious, cautious, cautious with 10-20-Life. But there is this tiny niche, that in a self-defense situation it shouldn’t be better that you shot the person in self-defense than that you shot a warning shot and tried to avoid the conflict.”
Progressive sentencing advocates also support the bill because it allows a judge to depart from the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in cases of aggravated assault or battery. Besides granting immunity to “warning shot” cases, the bill would let a judge hand down a more lenient sentence if the defendant did not act to further another criminal act, can prove defensive intent, and is not a threat to the public.
Even so, the bill mimics Stand Your Ground in its relatively vague exemptions for firing guns, without meaningfully reforming the mandatory minimum sentencing problem. Experts say the 10-20-Life laws have failed to curb gun violence, and mainly gives prosecutors leverage over defendants to negotiate plea deals. Meanwhile, many other states are embracing tougher penalties for people who commit gun crime in lieu of backing gun regulation. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) is pushing tougher mandatory minimums for illegal gun possession. Pennsylvania lawmakers are seeking a mandatory five-year sentence for any felon caught with a gun, and a two year minimum for Philadelphia specifically.