This is what happens when lawmakers abdicate their responsibility to the public in favor of special interests. It now appears that the National Rifle Association's must-pass legislation for the 2014 legislative session — so-called improvements to Florida's "stand your ground'' law — has a significant mistake. The bill includes language that seems to undermine the long-held common law castle doctrine that a person has no duty to retreat if there is a threat in his or her home. This bill, aimed at extending protection to those who fire warning shots, has other major flaws such as closing public records. But this latest revelation should prompt even the NRA to ask Gov. Rick Scott to veto HB 89.
Legislation dealing with the use of deadly force never should have been handled so cavalierly. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, acknowledges he didn't understand the 24-page amendment that Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, filed on March 18 after consulting with NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer. Nor apparently did the full House, which approved the amended measure on March 20. Nor did the Senate, which substituted the House version for its own, less problematic bill and adopted it on April 3. And the reckless Gaetz isn't talking.
What Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a Republican and a lawyer, has discovered is that the amendment includes a confusing rewrite of the castle doctrine, now enshrined in state law as part of the 2005 "stand your ground" law. Current law gives an individual in his home the right to use deadly force if he "reasonably believes it is necessary to do so" to prevent death, great bodily harm or commission of a forcible felony. But HB 89 appears to change that standard so that force is only justified if the individual believes there is an "imminent" threat of death, great bodily harm or commission of a forcible felony — the same standard that now applies to self-defense cases that occur outside a person's domicile.
That's not the only problem with HB 89, which expands the flawed law that emboldens individuals to resort to violence when retreat is a better option. The public face of this year's legislation was a Jacksonville woman, Marissa Alexander, who faces up to 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her husband, who had a history of domestic violence, while he and two children were present. But it is not even clear whether this bill's expansion of "stand your ground" immunity to cover the threat of deadly force would have helped her had it been in effect.
This bill also erodes Florida's tradition of open government by giving defendants in "stand your ground" who prevail the right to request all records of the incident be sealed from public view. There is no place in a democracy where government investigations of even justified homicides are not part of the open record. The accused have a right to a fair trial, but not to anonymity; and the public has the right to ascertain if officials are actually upholding the law.
This is what happens in Tallahassee when lawmakers ignore good judgment to do the bidding of an emboldened special interest more concerned with bolstering its fundraising than effecting sound public policy. The NRA made a big mistake and pushed legislation that potentially undermines the one self-defense provision — the castle doctrine — that has the broadest support. Scott should stand up for residents protecting their homes and veto this sloppily written bill.