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Florida Lawmakers Look To Pass Far-Flung Gun Bills

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- What do Pop-Tarts and property insurance have in common?

For anyone who has been paying attention to the Florida Legislature recently, the answer is easy: Guns.

Bills dealing with toaster pastries and insurance policies are just two of more than a dozen gun-related measures lined up for the 2014 legislative session that starts Tuesday. As in previous years, many of them will go nowhere, especially if Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association's powerful Florida lobbyist, doesn't like them.

But in an election year, whether the bills actually pass or not may not really matter to politicians looking to score points with voters.

"Certain legislators will file legislation they know will not pass because they will be able to demagogue during their campaigns and say, 'I filed it but couldn't get it passed.' This happens in every state in the union and on the federal level," said Hammer, a former national president of the gun-rights organization. "People use bills to accentuate their beliefs on certain issues. And those who want to be able to stand up and say, 'I support the Second Amendment, I support the rights of law-abiding gun owners,' are going to want to be able to vote on some pro-gun legislation and sometimes against anti-gun legislation."

The measures Hammer and the NRA are pushing this year in Florida, a testing ground for some of the group's most controversial legislation, would bar schools from punishing kids who pretend they're playing with guns, prevent insurers from asking about gun ownership and ban prosecutors from going after someone who fires a warning shot in self-defense.

Florida's gun-friendly, GOP-dominated Legislature is expected to sign off on all three measures, which have quickly gained support from committees in both chambers.

Dubbed the "Pop-Tart bill," one proposal (HB 7029 and SB 1060) would prohibit school administrators from disciplining children for simulating guns while playing or wearing clothes that depict firearms. The measure got its name from reports of a Maryland 7-year-old who was suspended from school last year for chewing his toaster treat into the shape of a gun.

Under the proposal, "brandishing a partially consumed pastry or other food item to simulate a firearm or weapon," "using a finger or hand to simulate a firearm or weapon" and "vocalizing a firearm or weapon," as well as possessing a toy made of "snap-together blocks" like Legos, are not grounds for disciplinary action unless it "substantially disrupts student learning" or "causes bodily harm" or "places another person in fear of bodily harm."

House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, the House bill's sponsor, said the measure will inject "common sense" into school "zero-tolerance" policies regarding weapons. Critics of the measure believe that the problem, if there is one, should be handled by educators, not by changing the statutes.

Baxley, R-Ocala, said the proposal is aimed at a larger "zero tolerance" issue and is designed to keep children in school and prevent them from being suspended or expelled for what he called "extraneous reasons."

"It really is about students. I don't really think of that as a gun bill," he said.

After failing to get a hearing last year, a proposal (SB 448, HB 89) that would grant immunity to people who display guns or fire warning shots in self-defense appears cleared for passage. Lawmakers first proposed the changes after hearing about Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a gun into a wall during a dispute with her estranged husband.

Hammer said the proposal is necessary to rein in prosecutors and judges who are wrongly applying minimum mandatory sentences intended to lock up "gun-wielding, gun-toting criminals" for a long time.

The measure received just two "no" votes from a House committee last week. Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, said he voted against the bill because he thought it was vague.

"I'm not sure if this language clarifies that a person can shoot into a shooting vehicle. I'm not sure this language clarifies or not whether or person can shoot into a home," McGhee said.

The "Discriminatory Insurance Practices against Gun Owners" proposal (SB 424 and HB 255) would seek to prevent insurers from charging gun owners higher rates, refusing to issue or canceling auto or homeowner policies because of gun ownership.

Florida law already prohibits insurers from charging more or canceling policies, but the proposal would allow policyholders to sue if an insurer took such an action.

Another NRA-backed proposal (SB 544 and HB 523) would allow county tax collectors to process concealed-weapons license applications. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services would still issue the licenses, but tax collectors could accept applications and renewals. The tax collectors association backs the measure, which also seems likely to pass this year.

Chances, however, of changes to Florida's most notorious gun law are a long shot, even after a recent case in Jacksonville refocused the spotlight on the state's "stand your ground" law, which allows individuals to use deadly force when they feel their lives are in danger and provides immunity from prosecution.

"I've seen no compelling evidence that the stand your ground law needs to be changed," Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said recently.

As they did last year, Democrats in both chambers have filed measures that would repeal or amend the law. The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee already defeated a measure (HB 4003) that would have repealed the law. The Senate has worked out a compromise plan (SB 130 and SB 122), which Hammer signed off on last month, that would tweak the law. But it remains unclear whether the House will hear a similar measure.

"The jury's still out on that. A number of people are still discussing this with each other to see if there's something of value here or if it's all window dressing. If it's just window dressing so we can say 'kumbaya,' then we'd be less interested," Baxley, a sponsor of the 2005 law, said.

Leaving the controversial law intact could be a good thing for Democrats in an election year.

"Absolutely," said Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville. Jones pointed out that Democrats and their allies used a wide-ranging election law passed in 2012 to motivate the left. Critics said that law was intended to make it harder for minorities and college students, who tend to support Democrats, to vote.

"This will be no different. We will make sure that they understand that this is something that was total neglect as a legislative body to fail to address it," she said.

"The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report."

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