TALLAHASSEE — An architect of Florida's 2005 "stand your ground" law says a bill passed by lawmakers this session is too confusing and could prevent people in their homes or vehicles from legally defending themselves.
"Unfortunately, in attempting to improve this excellent law, HB 89 inadvertently creates ambiguities and potentially reduces important protections for Florida's citizens," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.
As a state House representative in 2005, Simmons was the main drafter of "stand your ground." Contacted by a Times/Herald reporter about HB 89, the "warning shot" bill, he echoed concerns similar to ones raised earlier this week by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Simmons said the new legislation may require that, in order to use deadly force, those in their homes must first be attacked, and that they must conclude that the threat of death or bodily harm is "imminent." Currently, people are justified in using deadly force in their homes if they believe it's necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.
Although lawmakers passed the bill April 3, it has yet to reach Gov. Scott's desk.
Concerns raised by Gualtieri and Simmons, both pro-gun rights Republicans who support "stand your ground," are a sudden and unexpected twist for a bill that enjoyed popular support.
Much of the bill's appeal was because it aimed to prevent cases like that of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who faces up to 60 years in prison after firing a shot to ward off her estranged husband. A 1999 law, "10-20-Life," requires a 20-year sentence for anyone firing a gun while committing a felony, and an additional 20 years for each person present when the gun is fired.
Gualtieri said the bill weakens the "stand your ground" law that groups like Florida Carry and the National Rifle Association are supposed to uphold.
"Why would they stand by something that raises a standard for their members?" Gualtieri said.
Both groups, who helped draft the bill, stand by the legislation.
"Obviously, we're not going to do something that impedes your right to defend yourself in your home," said Sean Caranna, executive director of Florida Carry. "The staffs from all of the committees that looked at this bill, all of the attorneys who looked at this bill, disagree (with Gualtieri and Simmons)."
Longtime NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer didn't return repeated phone calls, but she has been a strong defender of the bill.
"She expressed her extreme displeasure with my 'no' vote," said Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity. "She said the NRA never would support anything that wouldn't help the Second Amendment. At the end of the day, I just felt it didn't protect the Second Amendment."
Out of 101 Republican state lawmakers, Legg was the only no vote. Simmons voted for it, but he said he later became concerned with what it would do. Gualtieri said he only recently fully understood the implications of the bill, which weren't discussed as lawmakers voted on it.
Neither the House nor Senate version changed "stand your ground" that much until Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, filed an amendment on March 18.
Almost as long as the bill itself, the 24-page amendment substantially changed the bill that had already cleared two House committees. It included language from the Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, that would expunge records for those who use deadly force in self defense and later have their charges dropped.
But Gaetz's amendment also included language that wasn't in the Senate bill. One section requires that those in their home or vehicle first be attacked, and then reasonably conclude they face an "imminent" threat of death or bodily harm.
When asked about it Tuesday, the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, replied: "I'm probably not the best person to ask."
Evers said he filed an amendment adding that language, but only to duplicate what was already in the House bill.
"It was getting late in the session, and my main concern was matching the House's language because I didn't want it to bounce back to the House," Evers said. "I didn't know that we were adding 'imminent' to the law. I relied on the fact that it came from the House, and that their language was going to be okay."
It's a confusing bill, where key words, like "imminent," are found only in citations to other statutes. There's a certain circular logic that impairs comprehension, as well, where the bill references statutes that the bill itself is changing.
But if all the cross references are read, it's clear that the most popular part of "stand your ground," being able to defend oneself at home or in a vehicle, is changed.
Evers said if that's true, then it should be fixed. But he said that doesn't mean it should be vetoed.
"We can tweak it next session," Evers said.
Gualtieri said that's the wrong approach.
"If we made a mistake, let's not put it in law," he said. "Let's do it right and go back and start over."