Attempts to roll back any of the Florida Stand Your Ground law’s most incendiary elements have foundered more than two years after the death of Trayvon Martin. But a bill to expand the law passed Thursday, mere months after it was introduced.
The National Rifle Association-backed bill would extend Stand Your Ground-like protections to those who point a gun at an attacker or fire a gun as a self-defense threat or warning, expanding the scope of the discretion judges and juries retain to exempt shooters from criminal charges for gun violence. The final bill also includes a provision to keep Stand Your Ground records secret.
The “Threatened Use of Force” bill passed the Senate Thursday 32-7, and will become law if signed by Gov. Rick Scott (R). The bill initially gained traction after Republicans exploited the outrage over the 20-year prison sentence for Marissa Alexander, who fired a warning shot during an altercation with her abusive husband. The bill was then dubbed the “warning shot” bill, because a judge rejected Alexander’s move to invoke the law. But opponents were quick to point out that injustice in Alexander’s case hinged in large part on a draconian mandatory minimum sentence that required the 20-year prison term, insensitivity to domestic violence, and racial disparities that are already baked into the existing Stand Your Ground law.
Rather than protect those like Alexander, the law is likely to expand immunity for violent conduct in as vague and sweeping a manner as Florida’s existing Stand Your Ground law, and could represent the newest mechanism for encouraging even more vigilantism.
A new amendment that made its way into the final bill would also make secret all records from Stand Your Ground cases, meaning that the records would be sealed in cases where charges are later dropped, and those who are granted immunity would have their records expunged. But the law also means that media outlets seeking to document the impact of the law would not have access to any records.
Dream Defenders Legal and Policy Director Ahmad Abuznaid called this a “double standard,” pointing out that no legislation in Florida protects young children arrested for offenses that often amount to disciplinary violations. “If the legislature is concerned with expunging criminal records, they should start with the tens of thousands of students who were arrested in school for minor misbehavior last year or the many people of color unable to vote in Florida because of a broken criminal justice system – not defendants with an itchy trigger finger and unchecked biases against black and brown people,” he said in a statement.
Last summer, Dream Defenders led a sit-in at the Florida Capitol that lasted more than eight days imploring repeal after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin. But those efforts have been summarily rejected, even after a review panel was commissioned to identify flaws in the law. That “farce” panel stacked with many of the original proponents of the law did not even consider studies finding that the law is associated with a significant increase in homicides, has a disproportionate impact on African Americans, and does not appear to deter crime at all. The NRA continued its lobbying on this warning shot bill even as trial was underway for the killing of another Florida 17-year-old, Jordan Davis.
Over the past two years, Florida courts have granted immunity under the Stand Your Ground law to a man who went back to his car to get a gun, and another who shot an acquaintance for threatening to beat him up. And just last week, an appeals court ruled that a prison guard could invoke the law to defend allegations that he severely beat an inmate on the job. There is another new compromise bill advancing in the Senate intended to make some reforms to the law, but even that bill would make the legal process even easier for defendants.