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Warning-shot bill has worrisome consequences

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Published:   |   Updated: April 18, 2014 at 02:44 PM

In the annals peculiar to the law of unintended consequences, the tale of Marissa Alexander ranks among the saddest, most harrowing and possibly least intended. Whether it merits a place in the uneven tradition of legislation-by-anecdote is, at this point, up to Gov. Rick Scott.

Alexander, a 33-year-old Jacksonville mom, faces a lifetime in prison in a retrial for firing a shot in the direction of her estranged — and, Alexander says, abusive — husband. Significantly, the bullet lodged in a wall near the man’s two children, resulting in three charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

Convicted in 2012, Alexander got a reprieve when an appeals court tossed her original conviction and its 20-year sentence, finding the trial judge improperly burdened Alexander with proving self-defense. (She also was sentenced improperly, serving three terms concurrently, rather than consecutively, as the law requires.) Under the favorable guidelines of the appeal, her retrial might yet reach a conclusion satisfying to both Alexander and an outraged public, but in post-Trayvon Martin Florida, it’s way too late for due process.

There’s a public relations problem here, the result of Alexander’s attorneys adopting a novel, if wildly unsuccessful, warning-shot strategy. The emerging verdict of hypocrisy was inevitable. Had she plugged her husband, her first trial would have lacked a key witness to refute her claims of torment and eminent danger. Instead, the jury heard it all — neither, it seems, was a saint — and convicted her in about a dozen minutes.

The message — in any violent confrontation, there’s no percentage in leaving a witness — concentrated the Legislature’s mind this spring, especially given the easily concocted, if inaccurate, parallels between Alexander and George Zimmerman, famously acquitted in teenager Martin’s shooting death.

The result is a festooning of Florida’s “stand your ground” statute with new baubles, chief among them immunity for otherwise upstanding people who fire a warning shot, flash a gun or threaten deadly force in self-defense. Whether these new wrinkles would have helped Alexander in the first place is problematic.

This particular episode of spousal fury had abated and her husband had retreated into another room, leaving Alexander to fetch a gun from the garage and then track him down, a sequence of events that seems to put her outside the broadest scope of the new provisions.

Never mind. The bill passed with substantial bipartisan majorities in both houses. A minority of the minority but alert both to the risks of legislation-by-anecdote and the law of unintended consequences, Trinity’s John Legg was the only Senate Republican voting against it.

Subsequently, he’s heard from more than a few constituents, most of them self-identified Republicans, many of whom wonder why they shouldn’t be recruiting a primary challenger right this very minute.

It’s a tough spot. Why should the law be tougher on those who defuse tense situations by advertising their response capabilities than it is on those who dispense with the threat and escalate straight to targeting center mass?

Says Legg, “This bill, in my view, does not solve the problem it was intended to fix.”

It goes contrary to his firearms upbringing — “The only time you pull your weapon is when you intend to use it” and “I was taught one simple rule: hit your target” — and alleviates a shooter’s responsibility once a projectile exits the barrel. Suppose a warning shot fells a bystander? And what happens when prosecutors in “stand your ground” or self-defense cases ask why the defendant didn’t fire a perfectly legal warning shot first?

In the end, Legg couldn’t find it within himself to join the majority. At the moment, it seems brazenly impolitic of him, but given the facts of the triggering event and the bill’s known unknowns, I’m not going to say he was wrong.

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