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Bush OKs gun law as dueling continues

Palm Beach Post | April 27, 2005
By Dara Kam

TALLAHASSEE — Floridians will have the right to shoot in self-defense anywhere they feel threatened under a bill Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law Tuesday, but critics fear it will encourage people to fight to the death rather than seek safety.

Bush signed the bill (SB 436), passed unanimously in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House, as the National Rifle Association's Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, looked over his shoulder.

The law, which takes effect Oct. 1, is the latest victory in a state already counted as one of the friendliest to gun owners.

Floridians already have the right to carry concealed weapons and can circumvent background checks when buying weapons at gun shows. The state also has reciprocal agreements honoring gun-toting citizens' concealed weapons permits from other states.

Bush signed the reciprocity bill into law, also with Hammer by his side, on April 20, 1999.

This year's law allows people to "meet force with force, including deadly force" when under attack in their home, car or elsewhere to prevent death or "great bodily harm." Come October, people no longer will have a duty to retreat when threatened outside the home but instead will have the "right to stand his or her ground."

The law already allows people to use deadly force in defending themselves in their homes.

"It's common sense to allow people to defend themselves," Bush said before signing the bill. "When you're in a position where you're being threatened... to have to retreat and put yourself in a very precarious position defies common sense"

The bill's House sponsor, Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, said the law brings Florida into line with other states, fewer than a dozen of which have "duty to retreat" laws on the books. Baxley and the Senate sponsor, Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, also were in Bush's office when he signed the bill.

"We're not breaking any new ground here," Baxley said. "We're catching up."

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said the law is the "first step of a multi-state strategy" that he hopes can capitalize on a political climate dominated by conservative opponents of gun control at the state and national levels.

"There's a big tailwind we have, moving from state legislature to state legislature," LaPierre said. "The South, the Midwest, everything they call 'flyover land' — if John Kerry held a shotgun in that state, we can pass this law in that state."

But gun-control proponent Sarah Brady called the bill a "terrible, terrible mistake" that will revert the state to "an almost uncivilized society."

Brady is the wife of former White House press secretary James Brady, who was permanently disabled when shot in an assassination attempt in 1981 along with then-President Ronald Reagan and two Secret Service agents. The Bradys launched the Brady Campaign, an effort to curb gun violence, in the wake of his assault.

"The Florida law has gone so far that it almost encourages people to see a necessity to do this," Brady said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Having my husband a victim and seeing how it destroys families, what's happening in Florida is there are going to be more innocent victims. What I'm worried about is an escalation in violence. It opens the door for that to happen."

Baxley said Brady's and others' "hysterical reaction" echoes the response of gun-control advocates to Florida's concealed-weapon law passed in 1987.

Since then, Florida's per-capita violent crime rate has fallen by almost 50 percent, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The notion that the "Castle Doctrine" — the law's nickname based on the premise that someone has the right to defend his home just as the king had the right to defend his castle — poses the threat of a Wild West, shoot-'em-up, frontier-scape is disingenuous, Hammer said.

"This doesn't give you the right to shoot people in the street or out in your front yard," said the soft-spoken, 4-foot-11 grandmother, who packs a.38-special, maintains the state's first concealed weapon permit with pride and characterizes naysayers as frightened "anti-gunners."

"All you have to do is read the bill," she said. "The bill clearly says someone who forcibly intrudes into your home, your residence or your occupied vehicle."

But in an era of road rage and hot tempers, and in a state with a violent crime rate second only to South Carolina, it's easy to envision a scenario where force rapidly escalates, said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, one of 19 members who opposed the bill.

"Two people in an altercation, that happens every day. Someone thinks you're looking at their wife the wrong way, somebody spills coffee on you, someone bumps into you, someone cuts you off, then all of a sudden they're in a fight," said Gelber, a former federal prosecutor. "Do we tell those people that they're supposed to walk away or do we tell them that you're supposed to stand your ground and fight to the death?"

No one has ever been prosecuted in Florida for lawfully defending themselves, Gelber said.

But Hammer said the "Self-Protection Act" promotes personal responsibility.

"We've never been able to rely on law enforcement to protect us. That's not their job," she said.

"They're not there when people are attacked. Taking responsibility for your own protection has always been something we've done in this country. All we're doing here is giving law-abiding people the tools that they need once again to protect themselves."


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