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.
Critics argue that the measure is so broad it will encourage fights between neighbors, parents at soccer games or drinking buddies to escalate into gunfights.
"It's almost like a duel clause," said state Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat and former federal prosecutor whose wife is a state prosecutor. "People ought to have to walk away if they can."
Gelber believes that Florida's major prosecutor groups, populated by state attorneys who must run for reelection, stayed out of the fight and many lawmakers supported the bill because they fear the NRA.
Law enforcement did not try to block the measure, siding with the NRA rather than opposing the group, as many sheriffs and police officials had done during the debate two decades earlier over right-to-carry.
Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, a leading candidate for the Republican governor's nomination in 2006, was among those who wrote letters of support. With that kind of high-level backing, Rep. Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala who sponsored the House measure, could ridicule critics as "hysterical."
"Disorder and chaos are always held in check by the law-abiding citizen," Baxley said.
As in the mid-1980s fights over the right-to-carry law, the state's big newspapers have almost unanimously lined up against Baxley's measure, although their outrage did little to stop its easy glide. South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist Howard Goodman said the state was "getting in touch with its inner Dirty Harry." Martin Dyckman of the St. Petersburg Times told tourists, indisputably a bedrock of the state's economy, to stay away: "Lebanon might be safer."
Hammer, a 4-foot-11 dynamo with a national reputation for her persuasive powers, dismissed the papers as "liberal, anti-gunners" and "Chicken Littles." The current law unfairly forces Floridians to make split-second decisions about a criminal's intent, she said, and NRA lobbyists like to note that was deemed impossible generations ago by legendary Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. "Detached reflection," Holmes said in one of his most oft-quoted pronouncements, "cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife."
Hammer stresses that violent-crime rates in Florida have dropped since the right-to-carry law was signed. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports that violent crimes dropped from 1,136 per 100,00 residents in 1989 -- two years after the law went into effect -- to 727.7 per 100,000 in 2003.
Her opponents counter that Florida's drop is not tied to the gun law and note that national violent-crime rates have been trending down. More important, Gelber and others say, is that Florida still ranked second in the nation, behind only South Carolina, in violent crime in 2003, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
Brady's best hope, as a national fight appears inevitable, is that there will be a backlash -- much like the bounce that gun control got in Florida in the 1980s when the loss on the right-to-carry law was followed by victories on waiting periods and background checks.
"This," Brady says of the new Florida measure, "will be the thing that will awaken the sleeping great number of Middle Americans who will think this is so absurd."
But, for now, it is the thoughts of another group that really matter, the ones with guns. In this state of 17 million people, permits to carry guns have been issued more than 1 million times in the past 18 years.