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Warning-Shot Bill Gaining Support In Spite of Police Opposition and Fears of Vigilantism

| November 11, 2013

Neil Combee, the Polk County Republican, wants Floridians to be free to fire warning shots without risk of prosecution. (Mark Foley)

Neil Combee, the Polk County Republican, wants to amend the Stand Your Ground law so that warning shots in some circumstances are not prosecuted under the state’s minimum sentencing laws. (Mark Foley)

A measure that would grant immunity to people who show guns or fire warning shots in self-defense is moving in the Florida House after an overhaul that could make it more palatable to potential foes.

The so-called “warning-shot” bill, HB 89 by Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, has a new name and would amend a different law if passed — and has already has gotten further during this legislative season than in the last.

Combee sponsored the bill last year after learning about the case of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who was sentenced to 20 years under the 10-20-Life sentencing law for firing a gun into a wall during a dispute with her husband. Combee said Alexander’s sentence was an example of the “negative unintended consequences” of the sentencing law.

Last year’s bill would have amended 10-20-Life, which requires mandatory-minimum prison terms for gun-related crimes. Formerly known as the Defense of Life, Home, and Property Act, Combee’s measure died in its first committee last March — the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. It drew opposition from many prosecutors and law enforcement officers, including Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, now president of the Florida Sheriffs Association.

“There’s no such thing as a warning shot,” Angela Corey, the state attorney in Duval, Baker, Clay and Nassau counties, said Wednesday. “That bill is dangerous and shouldn’t be implemented. Prosecutors have a ton of discretion and case law and jury instruction to guide us on the filing of charges.”

But on Thursday, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee passed the revamped measure, now the Threatened Use of Force Act, by a vote of 12-1. Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, was the prime co-sponsor, with 29 other co-sponsors from both parties.

The phrase “warning shot” never came up.

And the measure no longer would amend 10-20-Life — it would amend the “stand your ground” self-defense law. It would permit people to display guns, threaten to use them or fire warning shots if they were being attacked and feared for their lives.

Under the 10-20-Life law, possessing a gun while committing certain crimes is punishable by at least 10 years in prison, discharging a gun while committing those crimes is punishable by at least 20 years in prison, and hurting or killing someone during those crimes is punishable by 25 years to life in prison.

As cases like Alexander’s have surfaced, so has the will to add the threat of deadly force to the use of deadly force in Florida law. Combee can reel the cases off. So can Greg Newburn, Florida project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

“10-20-Life was never intended to be used against citizens who, in an act of self-defense, threatened the use of force to stop an attacker,” said National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, who has worked with Combee since last year. “It was never intended to be used on citizens who in fear for their own safety threatened to use force to stop an attack. Yet that’s how certain prosecutors are using it — certainly not all, but one is too many.”

Yet many criminal justice professionals credit 10-20-Life with lowering the crime rate, and many are wary of allowing citizens to do what law enforcement cannot.

“Where’s the warning shot going to go?” Judd demanded. “Law enforcement officers aren’t permitted to fire warning shots — why do we want citizens to rip off a few rounds in the community?”

The lone lawmakers to vote against the committee substitute, Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, said it sounded good at first “but further research indicates differently.”

“We can begin by giving judges more discretion,” McGhee said. “Speaking as a former prosecutor, this (bill) is not the answer. The answer is downward departure.”

“Downward departure” means departing from the applicable sentencing guideline range to arrive at a lower sentence.

In a statement, Florida Sheriffs Association spokeswoman Nanette Schimpf said the sheriffs believe people should have to protect themselves when in imminent danger, but they haven’t decided where they stand on Combee’s revised bill, which is known in Tallahassee as a committee substitute.

“The sheriffs have not taken an official position on the committee substitute and are continuing to review the language to ensure that it does not cast too wide a net and create unintended consequences or public safety concerns,” Schimpf said. “We are pleased to see that the specific authorization of warning shots and downward departure from 10-20-Life are no longer in the language.”

Meanwhile, Marissa Alexander will get a new trial in the spring, after an appeals court found that the judge had given incorrect instructions to the jury. Her bond hearing is next Wednesday, and Corey opposes her release.

–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

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14 Responses for “Warning-Shot Bill Gaining Support In Spite of Police Opposition and Fears of Vigilantism”

  1. A.S.F. says:

    OOOPS, I’M SORRY! I only meant to scare you! It went off by accident!

  2. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    Doing away with mandatory minimum sentences for someone who brandish a fire arm or fires a warning shot does not automatically make said activity legal, all it means is the Judge can look at the individual facts of each situation and determine what an appropriate sentence is, instead of having his/her hands tied and having to send someone to prison for 20 years for something that maybe probation or a 1-2 year sentence would be more appropriate. We need to do away with ALL mandatory minimum sentences, but this is a good start in that direction. We pay Judges to evaluate the facts of an individual case and determine what’s appropriate, we can certainly have pre-ordained guidelines, but they should not be mandatory because each case is different.

  3. Sherry Epley says:

    Why don’t we rely on and trust judges? Isn’t the word “Judge” used to describe making a decision (a judgement) based not only on the culmination of expertise on the law, but also common sense regarding the details and circumstances of particular cases. In my mind, there needs to be more flexibility and latitude in the decision making of judges, and less mandatory sentencing. Every case is different! There is no way to create laws to cover every conceivable situation and circumstance.

  4. m&m says:

    Another STUPID idea.. Leave well enough alone.. Rely on Judges??? If we did that the prisons and jails would be empty and all those guards etc. would be unemployed..

    • Johnny Taxpayer says:

      So you would rather we rely on politicians in Tallahassee to set one size fits all prison sentences?

    • Nancy N. says:

      Are you kidding? Judges in this state are elected and actually run on “tough on crime” and how many years they’ve sent people to prison for over the course of their career. One judge in the panhandle recently was retiring and his son ran to replace him bragging that his father sentenced people to over a million years in prison and it was his life’s goal to exceed that number.

      Judges in this state cater to voters and voters vote for “lock ’em up and throw away the key.” That’s how we ended up with all these mandatory sentencing bills in the first place – politicians trying to cater to the voters by sounding tough on crime!

  5. Geezer says:

    The bill will pass. Like it or not, it is destined to become law.
    I know that many dumb-asses around us will abuse this law.
    But at the same time it will protect the Marissa Alexanders of the world.
    Based on that, I’m in favor.

    I don’t trust our courts one bit though.

  6. usn-ret says:

    What goes up must come down. The Dallas Police Department prohibited its officers from firing warning shots back in the early 1970s. This was after an incident in which an officer fired a warning shot into the air while engaged in a foot chase. The bullet came down into an apartment window and killed an infant asleep in it’s crib. Sheriff Judd is correct and in line with longstanding police procedure to oppose allowing warning shots.

    • johnny taxpayer says:

      Two completely separate issues. This bill does NOT make warning shots legal, it simply means it’s not mandated to be punished by a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. It means the Judge can evaluate the facts of each individual case and determine what the appropriate sentence should be.

  7. Lonewolf says:

    Can you also tell them to meet you in the street at high noon? This is ridiculous

  8. Lonewolf says:

    American Journal of Public Health Firearm Study. Covering 30 years from 1981 and all 50 US states, it determined that for every one percentage point in the prevalence of gun ownership in a given state, the firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9 percent.

    • Rob says:

      Yes, and this is one of the 250 studies on gun control that the National Academy of Sciences reviewed, and was shown to suffer from such flawed design and implementation as to be entirely worthless. If their study was remotely valid, how would it explain the fact that several states, such as Illinois and California, which have extremely restrictive firearms laws and relatively low ownership rates, have some of the highest rates of homicide, while several other states with higher ownership rates and less restrictive laws have lower rates? Simple, they rigged the question in a way that anti-gun zealots conveniently ignore. They limit homicide to “gun” homicides, not overall homicide rates.

      Yes, fewer guns means that the percentage of homicides committed with guns will also go down. Just as if we got rid of all ballpoint pens, the percentage of notes written with ballpoint pens would go down. But that’s simply a rigged measure, designed to obscure the real facts. Because after all, the question we really should be asking is, did the total homicide rate go down? No murder victim, or family member of one, really cares whether they’re killed with a gun, a knife, or a baseball bat; they care whether they’re killed or not killed. And when one asks that question, one finds that total homicide rates do not decrease at all in states with lower firearms ownership rates. They actually instead increase slightly.

      So, yes, if we pre-rig the question by limiting what we measure to only those crimes in which guns are used, we’ll see a positive correlation with gun ownership rates. That’s just simple logic (though limiting your measure like this in the first place is anything but, unless your purpose is to mislead). But when we make an honest and scientifically valid measure of violent crime regardless of the weapon used, we get the opposite result, because, as even the CDC admitted in June, every study done has shown that guns are used far more often in self-defense than in crimes, and that those who use guns in self-defense suffer fewer injuries and deaths than any other group of violent crime victims; i.e., guns keep people safer from violent crime than any other method studied.

  9. Rob says:

    “We can begin by giving judges more discretion,” McGhee said. “Speaking as a former prosecutor, this (bill) is not the answer. The answer is downward departure.”

    No, this is NOT the answer, because it does nothing to stop innocent crime victims from continuing to be charged with and convicted of violent felonies for doing nothing more than defending their own lives from violent criminal attack. Even if a judge gives a sentence of no time and no fine, you still would be charged and convicted of aggravated assault, a conviction that would destroy your ability to get a job or hold professional licenses, take away your right to vote, and take away your right to own a firearm to defend your life again if you are ever again attacked. There needs to be some degree of immunity to prosecution, or innocent victims of violent crime will also continue to be at significant risk of becoming victims of rabid prosecutors as well.

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