tampabay.com

The shoot first state? Ads warn about law

A gun control group cautions tourists about Florida's new "Stand Your Ground" protection. Gov. Jeb Bush says it's safer than ever here.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published September 29, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - It's definitely not your typical tourist pitch.

"Thinking about a Florida vacation?" the advertisement asks. "A new law in the Sunshine State authorizes nervous or frightened residents to use deadly force."

Ads, fliers, billboards and a Web site are part of a campaign by a national gun control group to warn visitors about Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law that takes effect Saturday.

The law gives broad legal protections to a person who is attacked not only at home, but "any other place where he or she has a right to be," and removes a common-law duty to retreat in the face of attack. A person being attacked will have "the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force," not only at home but in public places.

The law also gives the shooter immunity from criminal and civil charges unless the victim is a police officer.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says its goal is to alert travelers, not scare off tourists who are vital to the state's economy. "We think it's reasonable to tell people that they should avoid passionate confrontations when they come to Florida," said Peter Hamm, the Brady campaign's communications director. "This was a dangerous solution to a problem that doesn't exist. The jails are not full of people who acted in self-defense. This crosses the line of reasonableness."

Prompted by the National Rifle Association, Florida lawmakers passed the bill by lopsided margins and with strong bipartisan support. Gov. Jeb Bush, who signed it into law in April, this week called it "a good, common-sense piece of legislation."

"Florida has a huge number of visitors who come to our state, and they're safer today than they have ever been before. This bill won't change that at all," Bush said. "Partisan political agendas should have nothing to do with our visitor industry."

Bush points to a steady drop in Florida's crime rate - now at its lowest point in 34 years - as proof that the state is a safe destination.

Still, only South Carolina had a higher rate of violent crime than Florida in 2003, according to FBI figures.

The NRA's Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, said Florida's law was needed to undo the work of "activist judges and prosecutors."

She said deadly force can be used in public only by someone who's licensed to carry a concealed weapon, and that similar antigun "nonsense" followed the passage of the concealed-weapon law in 1987.

Nearly 350,000 people in Florida held concealed weapons permits as of Aug. 31.

"Tourists have nothing to worry about," Hammer said, "unless they're coming here to break into our homes or attack us on the street."

Fresh from its Tallahassee victory, the NRA is pushing a similar bill in Michigan, where the Brady campaign is mounting active opposition.

The Brady group appeared blindsided by the Florida legislation as it moved through the Capitol last spring with liberal Democrats as well as conservative Republicans voting in favor.

Supporters included Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, a Democrat whose west Broward district is one of the most liberal in the state and who is now running for attorney general.

He said he voted for the bill because sheriffs, prosecutors and the Police Benevolent Association all supported it. Told of the Brady campaign's message, Campbell said: "That was proba-bly good advice even before the law passed."

As if to make up for lost time, the Brady group will hire people to hand out leaflets at Miami International Airport about "Florida's Shoot First Law." Hamm said temporary workers, not pro-gun control political activists, will be paid to pass out fliers in English and Spanish.

"Do not argue unnecessarily with local people," the flier states. "If you are involved in a traffic accident or near-miss, remain in your car and keep your hands in plain sight. ... We want your visit to be safe and positive. Please remember that each of us has a great deal of ability to prevent angry confrontations."

Readers of the Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Tribune and th e Guardian in London will see ads in their travel sections the next two Sundays that warn: "In Florida, avoid disputes. Use special caution in arguing with motorists on Florida roads."

To generate media interest in the effort, the Brady group mailed small baskets containing a sample flier and three oranges to network TV personalities such as NBC's Katie Couric, and to the editor of the Miami Herald .

The Brady campaign is now shopping for billboard space near the Orlando airport. A mockup of a billboard shows a map of the state morphing into the shape of a handgun, pointed at the words: "Florida law now allows people to shoot to kill if they feel threatened."

The Brady campaign is named after James Brady, the former presidential press secretary who was seriously wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

The group's message is unusual, but not unprecedented in Florida. After a series of tourist killings in the early '90s, Alamo Rent A Car attached warning notices on rear-view mirrors of its cars that included warnings to keep doors locked and windows up, not to pull over for flashing headlights and "If your vehicle is bumped from behind, do not stop."

Hotels and attractions also posted warning signs.

On its Web site, www.shootfirstlaw.org. the Brady group urges people to e-mail Gov. Bush, urging him to support repeal of the provision of the law that allows a person being attacked to use deadly force in "a place where he or she has a right to be."

Hamm said no other state has such a broad definition of the use of deadly force. He says that will encourage people to take the law into their own hands as never before.

"Deadly force in public is inherently dangerous for everyone involved, including innocent bystanders," Hamm said.

--Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.