TALLAHASSEE — The state Senate passed a bill Thursday that grants immunity to people with clean criminal records who fire a warning shot or threaten to use deadly force in self-defense. It also seals court records of those charged with firing a weapon, but later have those charges dropped.
Already passed by the House, the measure next goes to Gov. Rick Scott, who "supports the 2nd Amendment and Florida's self-defense laws (and) looks forward to reviewing this legislation,'' said a spokesman.
The so-called "warning shot" bill was backed heavily by the NRA and other gun groups like Florida Carry, who saw it as a way to better protect members facing prosecution or who had been convicted for aggravated assault for firing guns in cases that didn't involve injuries.
"This is about self defense," said the Senate's sponsor, Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker. "It's one more step forward for people to protect themselves."
The bill passed by a 33-7 vote. Of the nays, only one, Sen. John Legg, of Trinity, is a Republican. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was absent. Six Democrats, including Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, voted against it.
"A Pandora's box is being opened again," said Joyner, alluding to the 2005 passage of the controversial "stand your ground'' law. "I have great apprehension about what's inside."
The bill gained bipartisan support from seven Democrats by satisfying those who wanted a more fair application of "stand your ground" to include cases like that of Marissa Alexander. The Jacksonville woman was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison after firing a shot at her estranged husband. An appeals court has ordered a new trial.
The bill expands "stand your ground" by allowing those who are found to have used justifiable force to expunge court records related to the case, making them unavailable to the public.
Tacked on as an amendment late last month in the House by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, the public records exemption was added to the Senate version nearly three weeks earlier — on March 4. The idea came from Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, a former sheriff who first publicly asked for the records exemption during a Jan. 8 criminal justice committee meeting.
"Somewhere, we need to protect the innocent person's record," Dean said in January. "What part of innocence do we not understand? I feel that should be something we should include (in the bill) that would make sure the record is automatically expunged."
But such records are crucial to understanding implications of the 2005 law. A 2012 Tampa Bay Times investigation reviewed 200 cases, including ones that wouldn't be available under the new exemption, and found that the law was used inconsistently and led to disparate results.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale filed an amendment to remove the exemption, but it failed on a voice vote.
"The only way we could have any debate (on "stand your ground") is because of newspapers who review cases and track it," Smith told senators. "With this bill, it makes it harder to track these cases. Why would we tie our hands in knowing what happens in these cases?"
Evers said the media still can report on shootings — before charges are dropped.
"You have ample time prior to those records being sealed or expunged," Evers told a reporter last week.
If the sealed records prevent research years later, or if the case is not known about at the time, so be it, he said.
"If you're found innocent, I don't think that you should have a record," Evers said.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org