Miami Democrats push for gun-control legislation

Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 3:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 3:54 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Two Miami Democratic lawmakers tried to turn up the heat Tuesday on their colleagues to debate gun-control legislation that has stalled as Florida's legislative session reaches the halfway point.

State Sen. Dwight Bullard and Rep. Cynthia Stafford pushed their proposals to revise Florida's so-called "stand your ground" law, which says people can use deadly force if they feel threatened with no requirement to retreat if possible.

Their legislation has been bottled up in committees, adding to the frustration of Democratic lawmakers pushing for stricter gun laws in gun-friendly Florida.

Their efforts come against the backdrop of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the shooting massacre at the Newtown, Conn., elementary school.

Republicans who control the Florida House and Senate have shown little appetite for taking up such gun bills.

"Most of them moved in a direction that much of the legislature is not in harmony with," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who sponsored the "stand your ground" bill.

Among the exceptions are measures to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. A couple of such bills are winding their way through the Legislature.

Meanwhile, gun-rights advocates scored early committee victories with legislation that would allow designated teachers or other school employees to carry concealed weapons on campus.

On a related issue, Bullard called on Florida's top elected officials to investigate ways to halt the pipeline of military-style ammunition flowing into crime-ridden neighborhoods. Bullard recounted hearing from constituents who are so fearful of flying bullets that they lock their doors by early evening and avoid sitting by windows.

He urged Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and law enforcement leaders to look into ways to crack down on the black market funneling of armor-piercing bullets into those neighborhoods.

"We're talking about neighborhoods in which you don't see fruits and vegetables," Bullard said at a press conference in front of the state Senate chambers. "You see food deserts. So tell me then how is it so readily available to be able to get bullets in those communities?"

Bullard and Stafford bemoaned the lack of progress on a series of gun-control bills during the current 60-day session.

They focused on their proposals (HB 123 and SB 362) to amend Florida's "stand your ground" law to change the situations when someone can use the law as a legal shield. The legislation would require some overt act of aggression that puts someone in "reasonable fear" of death or injury as a legal justification for responding with deadly force.

Currently, people can defend themselves if they have a "reasonable belief" they are in imminent danger, Stafford said.

"This bill will help to eliminate the assumptions that have proven deadly in the past," she said. "It's no longer, 'I thought he or she looks dangerous or I thought I would be harmed or killed, so I used deadly force.'"

A slew of bills were filed by Democrats this session to either repeal or rewrite the "stand your ground" law. They were filed in response to Martin's shooting death by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in February 2012, a case that has drawn national attention. Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder but is expected to argue that Martin, 17, attacked him and that he should be acquitted.

Baxley said Tuesday he doesn't foresee any sweeping changes to gun laws this year, and said lawmakers should be especially cautious about limiting Floridians' self-defense rights.

"If you empower law-abiding people to stop violent acts, they can, they will and they did," he said.

The "stand your ground" law got an endorsement in February from a state task force that concluded that the law works and should not be overturned. The 44-page report said people have a right to feel safe and secure and have a fundamental right to stand their ground and defend themselves from attack. But the task force recommended that lawmakers look at the standards for neighborhood watch groups.

Other Democrat-backed gun bills that have languished in recent weeks would require universal background checks for gun purchases, require people to take anger management classes before buying ammunition and would close the so-called "gun show loophole" and require all gun sales to be processed through a licensed dealer.

Meanwhile, some gun bills making progress have included proposals to keep weapons away from the mentally ill.

A bill that cleared the Senate Criminal Justice Committee would temporarily suspend a mentally ill person's gun rights. The bill (SB 1000) would authorize a 90-day suspension of the ability to buy or keep a firearm or ammunition and to carry a concealed weapon.

Another advancing bill (HB 1355) would plug a loophole to guard against mentally unstable people getting firearms.

Gun-rights supporters won a victory when a House panel recently approved a bill that would let public and private school principals designate teachers and other school employees to carry concealed weapons on campus at all times. The designee would be required to complete the same training that bank and courthouse security guards complete in addition to the statewide firearms training. Principals could also decline the concealed weapons option altogether.

"It clearly is the only bill we have that addresses the reality that in our zeal to protect our children and keep them safe with gun zones, we have inadvertently made them a sterile target for madmen," Baxley said.

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