TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Senate gave final approval on Thursday to a bill that would allow gun owners to fire warning shots to ward off attackers in dangerous situations.
Lawmakers voted 32-7 to send the bill to Gov. Rick Scott to be signed into law. Backers said the law was needed because currently, a person who shoots an attacker dead could be acquitted under the state's "Stand Your Ground" law while a person who merely fired a warning shot could be sent to jail.
Opponents of the law, who have been pressing for stricter gun control in Florida, called the measure irresponsible and warned it could make gun-owners become trigger-happy.
A half-hour debate touched on high-profile cases including one in which Marissa Alexander, a mother, was sentenced to jail time for firing a "warning shot" that went into a kitchen wall during an argument with her abusive husband. She is currently free on bond and awaiting a new trial on charges of aggravated assault.
Civil rights groups and gun control advocates have called for stricter gun control and questioned self-defense laws in Florida due to her case and the shooting deaths of African American teenagers Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis by gun owners who claimed protection under the state's "Stand Your Ground" law.
Instead, state lawmakers have introduced a spate of bills to broaden the legal use of weapons in Florida.
The bill that passed on Thursday, by Senator Greg Evers, a Republican, would allow a law-abiding citizen to use a gun to scare off an attacker.
"What this bill does is, if you are threatened you can use force to defend yourself," Evers told the Senate. "This is just the right thing to do."
Senator Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who is the Senate minority leader, said that in the current climate, "this is the wrong message to send."
Smith said: "We all know the two magic words the public is going to hear today: 'warning shot.' ... and I don't think it's responsible right now to tell people to do warning shots."
Evers noted that the language of the bill "does not say anything about warning shots." He said the law was needed due to Florida's "10-20-Life" law in which anyone using a gun in a crime faces minimum sentencing of 10 years, or 20 if the weapon is fired and life if someone is killed or wounded.
Evers said that without the new law, someone who merely threatens an assailant with a firearm could be charged with armed assault and sent to jail while a gun owner who shoots an attacker dead could see charges dismissed or be acquitted under "Stand Your Ground."
Since George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder in the 2012 slaying of Martin, activists have stepped up their calls for gun control in Florida. The drive intensified when Michael Dunn opened fire on a car of black teenagers during an argument over loud rap music and killed Davis, also 17.
A jury convicted Dunn of three attempted-murder counts but was deadlocked on whether his shooting of Davis could be justified. Dunn is to be retried on the murder charge.
Marissa Alexander's case drew criticism from civil rights groups due to mandatory minimum sentencing rules when she was sentenced for firing what she termed a warning shot at her estranged husband in a domestic-violence incident.
She won a new trial and prosecutors are now threatening to seek 60-year maximum sentence if she is convicted again. In the Alexander case, the state maintained that she fired and missed, rather than standing her ground or firing a warning shot.
The legislature is also considering bills that would let people carry their guns during emergency evacuations without a concealed-weapon license, and let public schools designate former police or military members to carry guns on campus.