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Law & Order

What Exactly Does The 'Warning Shot Bill' Allow?

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There is concern that a bill moving through the Florida State Legislature would authorize legally armed residents to fire a warning shot at a perceived attacker, but as the proposed legislation stands now that simply isn't the case.The Florida House passed the so-called Warning Shot Bill last week, and the Senate tentatively approved a similar measure—they’ll vote again this week on an amended bill.

This bill was born from concerns about the case of Jacksonville woman Marissa Alexander who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a gun in the direction of her estranged husband. An appeals court has ordered a new trial for her.

Florida Coastal School of Law professor Rod Sullivan joined Karen Feagins on First Coast Connect to discuss the debate surrounding the legislation, and what exactly the proposal would change in current law.

Sullivan said calling the proposal the "Warning Shot Bill" is somewhat of a misnomer as the bill does not legalize the firing of warning shots.

"The only time you could fire a warning shot is when you would already have the right to fire a lethal shot," Sullivan explained, noting that the bill does not allow the threat of lethal force to protect property.

"The way the law works right now is, you're better off, if somebody is threatening your life or serious bodily injury, you're better off killing them," Sullivan said. "If you kill them you have Stand Your Ground, if you fire a warning shot, you don't."

The bill now being considered would allow Stand Your Ground to be applied to warning shots. As the law currently stands, warning shots are charged as aggravated assault, which carries a mandatory minimum 20 year sentence upon conviction. The second key component of the bill deals with those mandatory sentences.

"It says, if a judge finds that you had a good faith belief that a warning shot was necessary, but you were wrong, and you're convicted, we don't have to put you in 10-20-life," Sullivan said.

"The judge can use discretion to use the sentencing guidelines that are used for somebody who assaults somebody with a knife, and doesn't have to put somebody in jail for the full 20 years."

In addition to the Marissa Alexander case, Sullivan identified at least three other cases in which someone was convicted and sentenced to 20 years for firing a shot they said was meant only to scare a potential assailant.

"This happens, and it's not an infrequent occurrence," he said.

You can follow Karen Feagins on Twitter @karenfeagins and Patrick Donges @patrickhdonges.