WASHINGTON – Residents of Florida's castles — whether mobile homes or stately mansions — got extra protection last week when Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search) signed into law a bill that allows would-be victims of life-threatening assaults to use deadly force on their assailants without fear of prosecution or civil litigation.
Supporters of the so-called "castle doctrine" — a name that relates to the ancient common law notion that a home is one's castle and the king or queen of the house has the right to defend it — say this latest law demonstrates the state's backing for victims' rights and sends a message to violent criminals that they will be safe nowhere in Florida.
"We're standing with the people and I truly think it will make a safer society," said state Rep. Dennis Baxley (search), a Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives and chief sponsor of the measure, which smoothly passed both the Senate and House last month before winning Gov. Bush's signature.
"To me, this reasonable, self-protection bill defends innocent life," said Baxley, a conservative lawmaker who also sponsored a failed bill in March to reinsert the feeding tube of brain-damaged woman Terri Schiavo.
Baxley's bill addresses three areas of self-defense: It codifies into law a long-standing assumption that a homeowner has the right to use deadly force against an intruder if he feels that his or his family's life is in danger; shields the homeowner from prosecution; and prevents the assailant from lodging future civil action against the homeowner.
Secondly, it extends this right to protection of one's vehicle. Thirdly, persons attacked in any place outside the home where they have a legal right to be may also use force to defend themselves. This last measure is the most significant change because previous law dictated that a person has a "duty to retreat" from confrontation before he or she can use deadly force in a public space, meaning he or she has to try to flee an attacker first.
Not everyone is pleased with the law, however. Critics say the changes will encourage a "Wild West" atmosphere in Florida, where people are emboldened to use deadly force without fear of prosecution.
Democratic state Sen. Steven Geller said moderate lawmakers were manipulated into voting for Baxley's bill because self-defense in the home and car are reasonable expectations and they did not want to appear soft on criminals by voting against them.
"I hate this bill and I voted for it," he said. "Here's the problem — the first two parts of the bill are mom and apple pie and American flags and Chevrolet, so you can't vote against it … the third part is terrible."
Geller tried unsuccessfully to offer an amendment to remove the street self-defense provision. He said men, liquored-up at a sporting event, could easily get into a deadly confrontation and then claim self-defense.
"Does this sound like some bad western you've seen?" he asked.
Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (search), said he believes "you could hide criminal intent behind the new law," and blames the local National Rifle Association (search), a primary backer of the bill, for helping to railroad it through the state legislature.
"How are you going to reduce crime when you embolden gun owners to act?" he said.
But gun-rights advocates assert that a growing trend in states toward empowering individuals and supporting gun owners through new concealed-carry laws and other measures, has resulted in lower violent crime rates in those places, and Florida's new law will do more of the same.
"The courts in Florida had moved our self-defense laws to a posture of protecting criminals and when the laws protect the criminals instead of victims and law-abiding citizens, it's time to do something about it," said Marion P. Hammer, executive director of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida (search) and past president of the state NRA.
Hammer's group was a primary force behind Baxley's bill. She said critics warned of the same "blood in the streets" scenarios when Florida passed its concealed-carry laws in 1987, allowing citizens to obtain permits to carry concealed guns in public. The onslaught of violence never happened, she said.
She added that the new bill addresses much of the rhetorical concerns critics offer in that the use of deadly force in the home or car could not be justified when it is used against someone who belonged there, like a family member, nor could it be used against a police officer who identifies himself.
And if the person claiming self-defense used an illegal weapon, or was engaging in criminal behavior when the action occurred — like a drug deal or a gang fight — all the protections are tossed out of the window, she said.
According to lawmakers, no prosecution has taken place against a homeowner for using deadly force against an intruder since the first self-defense laws showed up on the books more than 30 years ago, and no high-profile cases have been logged of someone prosecuted for legally defending himself in public.
Meanwhile, they said, all states adhere to some variant on the castle doctrine, allowing homeowners the right to use force against an intruder. Some are more flexible than others in terms of how sure the homeowner must be that his or her life is in danger before acting and designate how much force can be applied.
Baxley and his supporters say a handful of states have castle laws with no-retreat provisions that extend to street assaults.
Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (search), said he fears that, fresh from success in Florida, gun-rights groups will be pushing this new measure in other states.
"They want to take the next step," said Hamm. "Now that they have the right to carry weapons, the NRA is looking for more opportunities to use those weapons."
Dave Kopel, a gun-rights advocate with the Colorado-based Independence Institute (search), said he doubts the Florida bill will have a huge impact on crime rates either way, but says it's a step in the right direction.
"It certainly reinforces what has been a successful policy in the United States in that when there is [a criminal], it should be [the criminal], not the victim who is taking the risks," he said.