TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Florida’s “stand your ground” law would be expanded to give more protection to people using the self-defense claim under a bill passed by the Senate on Thursday despite objections from Democrats who argued it could allow killers to walk free.
The bill would place the burden of proof on prosecutors to prove people charged with assaulting or killing someone else wasn’t acting in self-defense. It’s a response to a state Supreme Court ruling that said the burden is now on the defendant.
“It’s simply incorrect to suggest that this bill would result in otherwise guilty individuals somehow going free because this becomes the law. If the state has sufficient evidence to successful prosecute a defendant in a jury trial, the state will prevail in the immunity hearing before a judge,” said bill sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley, a Republican and former prosecutor from Orange Park.
Florida law allows people to use deadly force to protect themselves if they believe their life or safety is at risk. People charged after a violent confrontation can ask for a pretrial hearing to convince a judge they were acting in self-defense, but the accused must present the evidence. Under Bradley’s bill (SB 344), if a person makes a stand your ground claim, prosecutors would have to prove self-defense wasn’t a factor.
Several black Democratic senators argued against the bill, mentioning the case in which unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was later acquitted of a murder charge.
Bill opponents said expanding the law would make it even harder to prosecute people in similar cases.
“In these cases you only have one person’s side of the story. It’s the last man standing. It’s the wild, wild West. Trayvon couldn’t tell his side of the story because he was dead, so we only have the version of that was presented by the individual who hunted him, who tracked him down, who engaged him in an altercation,” said Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando. “To try to improve what’s already a bad law I think is not the direction we want to take.”
Bradley pointed out that Zimmerman never sought a pretrial stand your ground hearing, so the bill wouldn’t have changed the outcome of that case.
Democrats and Republicans did agree on two gun bills.
The Senate unanimously passed a bill that would ban recreational use of firearms on residential property in neighborhoods where are there are one or more homes per acre of land. The bill (SB 130) was written to prohibit backyard gun ranges. The bill specifies that property owners can still fire a gun to protect themselves or their property.
The Senate also unanimously passed changes to Florida’s 10-20-life law that now sets mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving guns. The bill (SB 228) would give judges flexibility when sentencing people convicted of aggravated assault instead of being forced to issue a 10-year-sentence if someone displayed a gun and a 20-year sentence if someone fires a gun, even if fired as a warning and not at an individual.
Also Thursday, a bill (HB 163) that would allow concealed weapons permit holders to openly carry their handguns cleared its final House committee and is ready for a floor vote. Bill sponsor Matt Gaetz added language to the bill stating guns would have to be holstered. Most Democrats have opposed the bill.
“A holstering requirement would be beneficial and in most situations where someone is responsibly carrying, a holster would be involved,” said Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach