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Legislature say's let the force be with you

BILL ALLOWS FORCE TO BE MET WITH FORCE: The measure, which has Gov. Bush's backing, breezes through both houses.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
Published April 6, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Under the watchful eye of the National Rifle Association, the Legislature on Tuesday sent the governor a bill that allows people to shoot an attacker in their homes or in public places.

The legislation has overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats, and Gov. Jeb Bush soon will sign it into law.

"It's a good, common-sense, anti-crime issue," Bush said.

The House approved the bill 94-20, as a dozen Democrats joined the Republican majority. Supporters called it a matter of self-defense, while opponents predicted a new wave of gun violence on Florida streets.

What began as a way to empower people attacked in their homes was expanded to include attacks in any place a person "has a right to be."

The bill (SB 436) originally was intended to put into law the "castle doctrine," a common law principle that allows a person to use deadly force if attacked in the home. At the NRA's urging, the bill removed a provision that says a person has a "duty to retreat" when attacked outside the home.

Under current law, a person acting in self-defense outside the home, workplace or car must use every reasonable means necessary to avoid danger before using deadly force. That, said NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer, is "absurd."

The new law would legalize retaliation. The bill says: "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." A person who uses force in such cases and is not violating another law could not be charged with a crime or sued.

The bill also says a person 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."

Hammer said that means a person being attacked with a knife can respond with a gun, because a knife is capable of causing serious injury or death.

The measure raced through both houses by lopsided margins, underscoring the political influence of the NRA and the reluctance of many Democrats to appear soft on gun owners' rights. Democrats are struggling to redefine their image, especially on values issues, after a series of demoralizing losses at the polls.

Hammer sat in the front row of the House visitors' gallery Tuesday, in full view of lawmakers below.

"To suggest that you can't defend yourself against a rapist who's trying to drag you into an alley or against a carjacker who's trying to drag you out of your car is nonsense," said Hammer. "The ability to protect yourself, your children, or your spouse is important, no matter where you are."

One Florida gun control advocate accused legislators of pandering to the gun lobby.

"It's literally mind-boggling in its audacity," said Arthur Hayhoe of Wesley Chapel, president of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "If I make a mistake, all I have to do is repeat the NRA's magic words: "I feel threatened.' " I call this the "right-to-murder' bill."

In the House, 12 Democrats joined 82 Republicans in supporting the bill. Several Democrats have announced plans to run for state Senate seats next year against Republicans who voted in favor of the bill.

Among the supporters was Rep. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, a 2006 Senate candidate, who said a state law enforcement official advised him to vote for the bill.

"I think it gives people the opportunity to defend themselves," Justice said.

Asked if political considerations played a role, Justice said: "Sure, everybody thinks about the next election. Everyone thinks about how it impacts people back home."

Justice said he was "flooded" with e-mails in favor of the bill, including one from Terry Haddock, chief firearms instructor for the Hollywood Police Department.

The NRA's Hammer accused critics of deliberate distortions. For example, she said opponents predicted people would take guns into sports stadiums or bars, when that's already illegal.

The long-time gun lobbyist said the bill is needed because of cases such as the elderly man in Pensacola man who shot and killed an intruder who refused to leave his property last November.

James Workman killed Rodney Cox after Cox darted into a trailer where Workman's wife was. The couple was living in a trailer after their home was damaged by Hurricane Ivan. Prosecutors decided not to charge Workman with a crime.

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a former federal prosecutor, said Florida law is clear: "When you are in your home, you have no duty to retreat."

He said he opposed the bill because it would "dramatically change" law by giving people who are attacked the right to use deadly force in a public place without fear of civil or criminal prosecution.

"For a House that talks about the culture of life, it's ironic that we would be devaluing life in this bill, which is exactly what we're doing," Gelber told lawmakers.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, fended off a batch of Democratic amendments, saying in one case a change would "blunt" the ability of a law-abiding person "to meet force with force."

"What this does is empower law-abiding citizens to stop violent crime in its tracks," Baxley said.

Opponents disagreed.

"This bill creates a wild, wild west out there," said Rep. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

"We're going to have open season in our communities, as it relates to confrontations," said Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg.

Besides Peterman, the only other Tampa Bay lawmaker to vote against the bill was Rep. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who likely will face Peterman in a Senate race in 2006.

"We opened Pandora's Box, and inside that box will be death to some persons," Joyner told the House.

Times staff writer Joni James and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 6, 2005, 01:08:04]


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