Bill would relax rules on self-defense

A House panel okays a bill that would let people shoot attackers in public, not just in their homes.

Published February 24, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Some Florida legislators want to give people the right to shoot an attacker in a public place.

It would be a dramatic departure from current law, but supporters say people should be able to defend themselves without fear of being sued or charged with a crime.

Backed by the National Rifle Association, the bill was originally intended to codify a common-law principle known as the "castle doctrine," which allows people to use deadly force if they are attacked in their homes or cars.

But the version that surfaced in the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday went much further, and it is similar to a bill in the Senate (SB 436).

A House committee voted Wednesday to allow people to shoot to kill in self-defense if they are attacked "in any other place where he or she has a right to be."

State law defines deadly force as that which is likely to cause "death or great bodily harm," such as firing a gun at a person or a vehicle.

Florida courts consider deadly force a last resort and have held that a person being attacked has the "duty to use every reasonable means to avoid the danger, including retreat, prior to using deadly force."

But this legislation says a person who is under attack in a public place "has no duty to retreat."

"Law-abiding people should not be told that if they are attacked, they should turn around and run," NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer told lawmakers. "This bill gives back rights that have been eroded and taken away by a judicial system that at times appears to give preferential treatment to criminals."

Sponsored by Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican, the bill (HB 249) passed 13-0. Two Democrats who voted for it said they support putting the castle doctrine in law, and expect the controversial language to be eliminated later.

Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the bill could give immunity to gang members who commit crimes in public. Seiler's attempt to eliminate the provision failed, on an unrecorded voice vote.

"This could be two gangs, deciding to have a fight in the street in Miami," Seiler said. "They both have a right to be standing on Biscayne Boulevard."

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, suggested the bill could lead to "tragic" consequences if two people began arguing in a stadium or nightclub, and one person began shooting. An innocent bystander could be killed, Gelber said, yet the person firing the gun might escape criminal charges because he was under attack.

"They're going to have to address the unintended consequences of that," Gelber said. "It really drags down an otherwise awfully good bill."

Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, the panel's chairman, hinted at a willingness to remove the controversial provision, telling Democrats: "We'll go ahead and look at it."

The 13 House members who voted for the bill included one Tampa Bay lawmaker, Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz. Democrats included Gelber, Seiler and Reps. Shari McInvale, R-Orlando, and Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee.

Baxley held up a stack of more than 800 e-mails from Floridians who he said have written him to support the bill. He said 62 House members, a majority, have endorsed his bill, and supporters include Attorney General Charlie Crist and groups representing Florida sheriffs, police chiefs and police officers.

"This bill empowers the law-abiding citizen to act," Baxley said.

Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral, said the bill reminded him of a sign he saw on a constituent's house while campaigning door-to-door. Kottkamp said the sign, next to a doorbell, showed a smoking .44-Magnum handgun and the words: "We don't dial 911."