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Bringing the Wild West to Florida

Published March 27, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - To friends or family who are thinking of visiting or moving to Florida, you might want to pass on this advice: Don't.

Lebanon might be safer. Maybe even Israel.

Under a bill the Senate has passed and the House inevitably will, the Wild West is coming to Florida streets. And to bars, shopping centers, theme parks and everywhere else where strangers meet.

This is what SB 436 says:

"A person who is attacked in any . . . place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."

This is not just about protecting your home - or your "castle," the common-law phrase by which the sponsors prefer to describe it. The bill goes far beyond that. It encourages vigilante "justice" and empowers street gangs.

"It's never been thought," said Sen. Steve Geller, "that a man's mall is his castle or the street is his castle." But soon, it will be that "a man's state is his castle."

What is this likely to mean in real life?

Scenario 1: Two drivers are arguing over a traffic accident. One reaches in his pocket for a pen and paper. The other thinks he is going for a gun. He will say his fear was reasonable.

Scenario 2: Two drunks are mixing it up in a bar. One pulls a knife. Shouldn't he have tried to break it off and walk away? No, says the bill; "A person does not have a duty to retreat if the person is in a place where he or she has a right to be."

This upends Florida common law which, as the Supreme Court expressed it, already allows lethal self-defense in public places provided one has first used "every reasonable means to avoid the danger, including retreat."

The Florida Senate's staff report, obviously unread by the senators, explains why this doctrine should be left alone. The emphasis on flight before fight evolved because modern society places a greater emphasis, as the Supreme Court remarked, "on the sanctity of life as opposed to chivalry." The court noted on another occasion that "human life is precious, and deadly combat should be avoided if at all possible when imminent danger to oneself can be avoided."

When the Florida Senate took up the bill, every senator who had just a few minutes earlier extolled the sanctity of Terri Schiavo's life voted to make everyone else's life less safe.

So did every senator who had argued courageously against the Schiavo bill. Even Geller, D-Hallandale, who had tried the day before to preserve the present law pertaining to public places. Nobody asked for a roll call after the voice vote that defeated his amendment. Nobody raised a voice on final passage.

"I think all the debate was taken out of us," said Sen. Walter G. "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, who had come to tears in debating the Schiavo bill.

Maybe so, but how did such a monstrosity pass unanimously? There is more to it than just the fact that the National Rifle Association is more intimidating than even the Christian right.

It is simply this: Senators who knew better voted yes because they also knew they would lose. So they saw no point in wasting a vote that would be thrown back at them in their next campaigns. That has become the particular fear of the Democrats: Don't be trapped into voting "soft on crime."

This is fresh proof of how negative campaigning has become the death of common sense.

The House version, HB 249, has 81 co-sponsors, more than two-thirds of the House. The NRA's prime front man, no doubt unconscious to the irony, is the unctuous Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who also sponsored the Schiavo bill. Of the 22 House members from this newspaper's circulation area, only seven are not already aboard the NRA Express.

A noteworthy fact: Two of the seven non-sponsors are former sheriffs, Everett Rice, R-Treasure Island, and Charles S. Dean, R-Inverness. Rice said Friday he hasn't decided how to vote on HB 249, or whether to try to amend it. But he was surprised to learn that it had not been referred to the Criminal Justice Committee on which he serves.

It's ready for the House floor where, Rice surmised, "It looks like the skids are greased."

Martin Dyckman's e-mail address is

[Last modified March 27, 2005, 00:34:19]

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