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Sue Carlton: Gov. Rick Scott should veto confusing 'warning shot' bill

Published May 24, 2014

Three words on the "warning shot'' legislation about to hit the governor's desk: What a mess.

It doesn't matter whether you favor Florida's controversial "stand your ground'' law or think it dangerous. The most recent tweak to it from Tallahassee has something for everyone.

For starters, there's the potential weakening of the law even though legislators who voted "yay" surely intended to expand it. There's also, as always, a nifty gift or two for the powerful gun lobby, like the part about expunging court records in "stand your ground'' cases.

Hopefully, there's enough confusion written in —- heck, even the legislator who originally drafted "stand your ground'' is having doubts — to give Gov. Rick Scott serious pause before signing.

The law that polarized us over the infamous shooting death of an unarmed black teenager was up for changes during the legislative session — including a well-intended one in the name of Marissa Alexander of Jacksonville, sentenced to 20 years for firing what she said was a warning shot in an altercation with her estranged husband. This does seem striking when you consider no one was hit — and Trayvon Martin is dead, and George Zimmerman a free man.

A judge declined to grant Alexander "stand your ground'' immunity and a jury convicted her in 12 minutes. She has since won a new trial because of jury instruction problems.

But the idea that someone who claimed she was standing her ground and did not shoot anyone could get that kind of prison time stuck with legislators.

Somehow, the effort to tweak "stand your ground'' to protect those who fire legitimate warning shots or threaten force got twisted in the final version awaiting the governor's pen. It appears, in certain circumstances, to add a requirement that the person who uses deadly force reasonably believed it necessary to prevent not just death or great bodily harm, but "imminent" death or great bodily harm. As in, something just about to happen to them. Which would seem to narrow the law rather than expand its protection.

Now, if you are someone who already believed that "stand your ground'' was unnecessary, that self-defense already worked in Florida and that this swag for the National Rifle Association has been applied unevenly across the state since, maybe you don't object to the addition of "imminent."

But this bill is almost dizzyingly written. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri — a lawyer, by the way, who generally supports "stand your ground'' protections with some exceptions — called it confusing even for people who regularly deal with this. "Legislation should be direct. It should be straightforward," Gualtieri told me. "It should be easily understood so people will know what the rules are."

This law would also allow the expunging of court records when charges are dropped in "stand your ground'' cases, alarming to those of us who believe the public record ought to be both complete and, well, public.

Now it's up to Scott. And in the thick of a tough re-election battle against Charlie Crist, it's politically dicey for him to veto anything with the fighting words "stand your ground" attached. But rejecting legislation that confuses an already intensely complex issue seems a no-brainer, no matter where you stand on "stand your ground.''