TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Senate on Thursday approved the so-called warning shot bill, moving to significantly revise the state's self-defense laws for the first time since the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.
The bill, which was partly inspired by the case of a Jasonville woman sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a shot near her estranged husband during an altercation, passed the chamber 32-7. The woman, Marissa Alexander, is out on bail awaiting a new trial.
The bill, which earlier received backing from the Republican-controlled House, now goes to the desk of Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
Alexander had tried to assert a "stand your ground" defense, but a judge rejected her claim. She was sentenced under a 1999 law called "10-20-life" in which mandatory sentences are imposed for using a gun in certain cases.
That law requires that anyone who shows a gun in the commission of certain felonies receive an automatic 10 years in prison. If a gun is fired, it's an automatic 20 years under that law. Shoot and wound someone and the mandatory sentence is 25 years to life.
The warning shot bill, however, would allow for instances of threatened use of force without falling under the rule of "10-20-life."
NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer and supporters said "10-20-life" wasn't intended to be used in self-defense cases.
"This is an important bill because it stops the abuse of 10-20-life and keeps prosecutors from using it against people who use lawful self-defense," Hammer said. She added that "10-20-life is not about self-defense. Self-defense is a constitutional right. 10-20-life was passed to stop prosecutors and judges from slapping gun-wielding criminals on the wrist and giving them reduced sentences or probation."
Opponents of the proposed changes, however, argued that the so-called warning shot legislation would encourage more people to fire weapons.
"There's two magic words the public's going to hear -- warning shot," Sen. Chris Smith, R-Fort Lauderdale, said. "I just don't think it's responsible right now to encourage people to give warning shots -- in the air, in a crowd or wherever."
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Greg Evers, a Republican from Pensacola.
Evers opposes the phrasing "warning shot" and emphasized that the bill is all about self-defense.
"This bill, if you read it, does not say anything about a warning shot," Evers said. "What this bill does, it says, if you are threatened you can use equal or threatened use of force to protect yourself.
"This is about self-defense. This is about the right thing to do."
Alexander attempted to use a "stand your ground" defense which allows the use of lethal force when threatened with death or great bodily harm. The defense failed because she did not actually shoot her husband.
Opponents in the House and Senate have folded "warning shot" arguments into "stand your ground" debates.
A commonly used example is the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who was accused and later acquitted in the death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
In another case, Michael Dunn was recently convicted of second-degree attempted murder after shooting into a car full of black teenagers. The jury deadlocked on a murder charge against him in the death of one of those teens, Jordan Davis, in Jacksonville.
Some have questioned what qualifies as a warning shot and how many warning shots are allowed. Smith argued that the bill sent to Scott would give "someone like Michael Dunn the opportunity to get away with filling a car with 11 bullets."
An aide to Scott said he will give the bill close scrutiny.
"Governor Scott supports the Second Amendment and Florida's self-defense laws," spokesman John Tupps said. "He looks forward to reviewing this legislation in its entirety now that it has been approved by both the House and the Senate."