Three gun-related measures --- including an open-carry proposal and another that would change the burden of proof in the state's "stand your ground" law --- are headed to the House floor for a full vote.
A proposal that would let the nearly 1.5 million people in Florida with concealed-weapons licenses openly display firearms in public received a thumbs-up at its final committee stop on Thursday. Later in the day, the Senate passed two other gun measures, including the "stand your ground" proposal (SB 344).
The House will take up the self-defense measure after it receives the bill from the Senate, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli's spokesman Michael Williams said in an email Thursday. A House version failed on a tie committee vote in November.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the open-carry bill (HB 163) after rejecting an amendment with alternatives suggested by the Florida Sheriffs Association. Gun rights advocates argued the amendment wouldn't stop people with concealed-carry licenses from being arrested for accidentally exposing a sidearm.
"To every extent that our citizens can take more responsibility for their own safety, we enhance the public safety of the collective society," Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who sponsored the bill, told reporters after the meeting. "Of course, there are circumstances where people use firearms in a bad way, just like there are circumstances where people use other weapons in a bad way. I don't think that's the function of the law. I think that's the function of the individual."
Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Tallahassee Democrat, joined Republicans on the committee in a 12-4 vote in favor of the proposal.
The committee tacked on an amendment that would require an openly carried gun to be in a holster, case or bag. The amended bill would also acknowledge that private employers can display written notices stating that possession of a firearm is prohibited.
The open-carry measure drew concerns from several lawmakers over its potential impact to tourism. Law enforcement officials are split on the proposal --- the Florida Police Chiefs Association and some county sheriffs support it, while the Florida Sheriffs Association is opposed.
Lake Worth Democrat Rep. David Kerner argued that, with or without open-carry, concealed-weapon license holders can defend themselves now.
"Nobody wants this policy except a very small group of Floridians," Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, said. "I don't think we should jeopardize the image and safety of our state and law enforcement officers to appease a theory of constitutional law that is not accurate."
Kerner, a former police officer, attempted to include language proposed by the Florida Sheriffs Association that would define measures for law enforcement when a concealed-weapons license holder inadvertently displays a sidearm.
But influential National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer dismissed concerns about the bill as "creative hyperbole."
"Most license holders will never carry openly," Hammer said. "But if they do they won't cause a problem. And how do I know that? Because if they cause problems, they will lose their license and then they can't carry concealed or openly."
A Senate companion (SB 300) is awaiting a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee, where amendments similar to Kerner's are expected.
The Senate, meanwhile, on Thursday sent a pair of gun-related bills to the House.
By a 24-12 vote, the Senate signed off on a measure (SB 344) that would alter the burden of proof in "stand your ground" self-defense cases.
Democrats contend the proposal will put an end to cases before all of the facts are fully revealed.
"It potentially stops an investigation cold after the last man standing tells his side of the story," said Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa. "The dead do not have the opportunity to rebut the tale told by the survivor. In cases where there are no witnesses, this bill stacks the deck against the justice for the dead."
The bill stems from a Supreme Court ruling last year that said defendants have the burden of proof of showing they should be shielded from prosecution under the "stand your ground" law. In "stand your ground" cases, pre-trial evidentiary hearings are held to determine whether defendants should be immune from prosecution. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, would place the burden of proof on prosecutors in the evidentiary hearings.
Bradley, a former prosecutor, said the "fundamental tenet" of the criminal-justice system is that the state has the burden of proof in criminal proceedings.
"I think it's simply incorrect to suggest that this bill will result in an otherwise guilty individual going free," Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said. "If the state has sufficient evidence to successfully prosecute a defendant in a jury trial, the state will prevail in the immunity hearing before a judge and the judge will permit the case to go to trial."
But Democrats argued that the measure would increase the likelihood of a repeat of the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old who was shot by neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford.
Zimmerman, who claimed he shot the teen in self defense, was not immediately charged. A jury later acquitted him of second-degree murder charges.
"We talk about the shifting of burden from the defendant on to the state. All I can do is think about how that (Zimmerman) trial played out and what I felt like when that jury verdict came down," said Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat who is black.
Although the House version of the proposal (HB 169) failed on a tie vote in its only committee vetting last year, Williams said "the House will take up the (Senate) bill for consideration" when it receives the bill.
The Senate unanimously passed a second measure (SB 130) --- dubbed the "backyard range" bill --- intended to restrict the recreational discharge of a firearm in certain residential areas.
The measure prohibits the recreational discharge of a firearm outdoors, including for target shooting or celebratory shooting, in primarily residential areas with a density of one or more dwelling units per acre. A violation would be a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
A staff analysis of the bill pointed to reports about people constructing gun ranges in their backyards, with neighbors being concerned for safety. Law enforcement officials complained that they were hamstrung because their lawyers found the state statute barring “recklessly or negligently" discharging a firearm to be "subjective and vague."
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