Over the next few weeks, Florida lawmakers are slated to take up a series of gun-related measures, from fixes to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law to enhancing penalties for insurers who discriminate against gun-owners. But, while some bills appear to be moving quickly through the Legislature, others appear to be stalled in the legislative process.
"Right To Be A Kid" Bill
Picture a child pointing his finger in school, saying ‘bang, bang’ or a kid wearing a T-shirt that has a gun on it. Under Florida’s zero-tolerance school policies, those kids could face suspension and could even be referred to the state’s juvenile justice system. And, the National Rifle Association’s Marion Hammer called that “insane.”
“Children have been suspended for having an NRA T-shirt that had a picture of a gun on it, for drawing a picture of a gun, you know, zero-tolerance should not mean zero common sense," said Hammer.
So, Hammer supports what she calls the “Right To Be A Kid” bill seeking to revise those school policies. The measure goes by another name in the House: the "Pop Tart" bill. It's because of a seven-year-old from Maryland who was suspended from school after chewing his pop tart into a gun shape. It’s starting to move through the House, and has its first Senate hearing Monday.
Bill Banning Insurance Discrimination Against Gun Owners
Hammer says she also supports a bill authored by Fort Walton Beach Republican Representative Matt Gaetz. It seeks to toughen the penalties for insurance companies who discriminate against gun owners.
“They ask them whether or not they own firearms, and then sometimes, they say then, we’re not going to give them homeowners’ insurance or car insurance. It’s pure discrimination,” added Hammer.
"Warning Shot" Bill
There are also a couple bills aimed at tweaking Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. One NRA-backed bill is already on its way for a House floor vote, authored by Polk City Republican Representative Neil Combee.
“It’s like when did this start making sense that we’re putting people in prison for 20 years, when they’ve not actually physically harmed anybody. They claim—regardless of what you want to believe—they felt threatened and wrecked in self-defense, so I think that we can give judges discretion on matters like this,” said Combee.
His aim is to fix the unintended consequences of Florida’s 10-20-Life law to allow people to fire a warning shot or show a gun if they feel threatened without fear of prosecution. It’s inspired by Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who initially claimed Stand Your Ground, after she fired a warning shot during an alleged domestic dispute with her husband. She received 20 years for aggravated assault.
Meanwhile, the bill’s Senate companion is running into a bit of a roadblock because it has several amendments tacked on that state attorneys, public defenders, and Florida sheriffs can’t agree on. Those include a provision to get rid of aggravated assault from Florida’s 10-20-Life law and another that seeks to further clarify when a person may lawfully use force in self-defense. The only change everyone agrees on—that’s also now included in the House version—is to expunge the record of a person found not guilty.
The measure is backed by Matt Gaetz, the chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. That’s the first panel Combee’s bill passed, on the same day a measure repealing the controversial law failed.
Stand Your Ground "Tweak" Bill
Gaetz says while some loopholes will be fixed in Combee’s bill, he likes the existing law—which is why he’s opposed to another measure aimed at tweaking Stand Your Ground. So far, he hasn’t agreed to put the House bill on the agenda because he says it lacks substance.
“It’s just sort of a feel-good bill, so that politicians can stand up and say that they’ve done something, whereas it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything in the law, in a favorable way. But, it’s early. The Florida Legislative Session doesn’t even officially begin until the beginning of March, so we’re never so close-minded that we don’t leave open the opportunity for some meaningful reform,” said Gaetz.
Gaetz says he’s been in talks with the bill’s Senate sponsors, Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith and Altamonte Springs Republican Senator David Simmons, the original law’s main author. Their bill has so far cleared its first Senate hearing. Still, there are several contentious provisions both have agreed to iron out, and Smith says months later, they’re still working on that.
“The hardest part is the aggressor language. You know, what is an aggressor, how do you deal with an aggressor, what is actually the definition of an aggressor is, and their ability to use Stand Your Ground. And, so we’ve had to look at court cases. We’ve talked to way too many lawyers. I’ve spent more time with the NRA than I’ve ever spent in my life, trying to come up with a consensus on language,” said Smith, laughing.
And, he says he’s hopeful something will get passed not just in the Senate, but the House as well.
“With each day, I think Representative Gaetz matures a little more and he gets a little closer to God," joked Smith. "So, hopefully, through this Session, he can find it in his heart to pass something—if not, even if it lacks substance in his mind—it is still significant that we do something on this law. Our silence will be magnified, if another person gets killed in a movie theater. It’s not an excuse to shoot somebody dead at a gas station because their music is too loud. It’s not an excuse to chase someone through the streets because they look suspicious.”
Bill Allowing Tax Collectors To Take Gun Applications
Another bill starting to move relates to permits, rather than guns themselves authored by Tampa Republican Representative James Grant. It allows tax collectors to help the Department of Agriculture process concealed weapon permit applications to deal with an increased demand. The department will still issue permits.
“So, right now, a citizen of Florida’s option is to drive to one of the regional offices that may be several hours away or mail in their application. So, we’re allowing the tax collectors to charge a convenience fee and the Florida resident to pay that convenience fee and get it processed more efficiently,” said Grant.
Under the bill, tax collectors can opt to help the Ag department, and Leon County’s Doris Maloy says while her office won’t likely participate, she supports Grant’s efforts.
“Anytime that you can bring efficiency to the process, it’s a good thing, because the existing infrastructure is already there at many of the tax collector offices,” said Maloy.
So far, both the House and Senate bills have passed their first committee stops.
Other Gun-Related Measures
There’s also a bill that would allow those to carry a concealed weapon without a permit during a mandatory evacuation. It’s passed one House Committee so far, and is slated for its first Senate hearing Monday.
There’s also a bill that has had no hearings as yet that would allow school employees and officers on school property to carry a gun, as long as they have permission from both the principal and superintendent.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.