Fla. Gun Law to Expand Leeway for Self-Defense

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

MIAMI -- It is either a Wild West revival, a return to the days of "shoot first and ask questions later," or a triumph for the "Castle Doctrine" -- the notion that enemies invade personal space at their peril.

Such dueling rhetoric marked the debate over a measure that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) could sign as early as Tuesday. The legislation passed so emphatically that National Rifle Association backers plan to take it to statehouses across the nation, including Virginia's, over the next year. The law will let Floridians "meet force with force," erasing the "duty to retreat" when they fear for their lives outside of their homes, in their cars or businesses, or on the street.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said in an interview that the Florida measure 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."

The Florida measure says any person "has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm."

Florida law already lets residents defend themselves against attackers if they can prove they could not have escaped. The new law would allow them to use deadly force even if they could have fled and says that prosecutors must automatically presume that would-be victims feared for their lives if attacked.

The overwhelming vote margins and bipartisan support for the Florida gun bill -- it passed unanimously in the state Senate and was approved 94 to 20 in the state House, with nearly a dozen Democratic co-sponsors -- have alarmed some national gun-control advocates, who say a measure that made headlines in Florida slipped beneath their radar.

"I am in absolute shock," Sarah Brady, chair of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in an interview. "If I had known about it, I would have been down there."

The lessons of history do not bode well for gun-control groups and their leaders, such as Brady, who became a crusader after President Ronald Reagan and her husband, then-White House press secretary James S. Brady, were seriously wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt.

Florida has a track record as a gun-law trendsetter. In the mid-1980s, the NRA chose Florida to launch a push for "conceal carry" or "right-to-carry" laws, which allow states to issue permits for residents to carry firearms. Democrat Bob Graham, who was then governor, vetoed the measure, but it was resurrected after he left office and was signed in 1987 by Gov. Bob Martinez, a Republican.

At the time, fewer than a dozen states had right-to-carry laws. Now there are 38.

LaPierre thinks the new Florida measure -- nicknamed the "Castle Doctrine" by its conceiver, Florida lobbyist Marion P. Hammer, a former NRA president -- can create the same momentum.

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