Florida's so-called "Warning Shot Bill" overwhelmingly passed the House last week and looks to pass in the Senate, but the top prosecutor in the Keys is warning residents not to read too much into the legislation.
House Bill 89 allows people to fire a warning shot from a gun only if they believe they will be killed or suffer great bodily harm. The legislation is part of the controversial 2005 Stand Your Ground law, which effectively removed a requirement that a person try to escape before using violence against an attacker.
"I don't think it's fair to think that you can just willy-nilly go out and fire warning shots," said Monroe County State Attorney Catherine Vogel. "There are still many restrictions."
The Stand Your Ground law drew national attention after it was cited in a Sanford case involving a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Zimmerman claims the boy attacked him. He was eventually acquitted, a verdict that drew criticism from gun-safety advocates across the country.
Then came the case of Jacksonville resident Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting what she claimed was a warning shot during a fight with her ex-husband. An appellate court has subsequently ordered her retrial.
Vogel read and reread on Friday Florida's use of force laws and came to the conclusion that the Warning Shot Bill probably won't change much.
"There's still so many restrictions on when a person is allowed to use deadly force, or threatens to use deadly force," Vogel said. "That's the warning shot, the threat of deadly force language. You still have to believe it's necessary to prevent immediate death or great bodily harm to either yourself, another person or in protection of your home."
Vogel believes some news media reports are overstating language in the law.
"Much of that language existed in the law before this bill passed (the House), and much of these protections were already there," she said.
Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay cited concerns over the concealed carry law before its passage. He said it was too early to tell if the Warning Shot Bill will be good for Florida. Concealed carry has been a safe venture, the sheriff said.
"It can interpreted a number of ways, and it could open the door for people firing warning shots when they shouldn't, or it could save lives and prevent home intruders," Ramsay said. "Like anything, there's good and bad with this, and I'm not really sure at this point. I hope it can potentially save lives in the long run."
The Stand Your Ground law is not often invoked, but it has been cited in several Keys cases.
• It was rejected in the murder case against Nicholas Ferro, which ended with his sentence to 28 years in prison in February. Attorneys for Ferro unsuccessfully tried to convince circuit Judge David Audlin -- and later, the Third District Court of Appeal -- that their client was defending himself when he stabbed Key West resident Marques Butler in a street fight among two groups during Fantasy Fest 2009.
• In an unrelated case in Key Largo, Jorge Correa admitted he shot Louis Figueroa three times during a dispute at a trailer park in 2007. He successfully convinced circuit Judge Luis Garcia that he legally defended himself. Prosecutors had charged Correa with attempted first-degree murder with a firearm.
• Defense attorney Hal Schuhmacher cited the self-defense law on behalf of client Zachary Kenneth Wilson of Perry, Mich. Wilson was charged with felony aggravated battery and two misdemeanor counts of battery in a 4 a.m. street fight in Old Town Key West, but circuit Judge Mark Jones ruled in April that the law wasn't applicable.
Earlier this month, Wilson averted a possible jail sentence for felony battery by accepting a plea agreement that calls for him to pay some $30,000 in medical bills to the victim in the case.
Circuit judge Mark Jones sentenced Wilson, 27, to five years probation in Michigan, and mandated that he take anger management classes as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Besides the $30,000 in medical bills, Wilson must also pay $3,300 in prosecution fees due to his failed bid last year to convince appellate judges that the case should be tossed as per the Stand Your Ground law.
"I don't think this bill (Warning Shot Bill) added much that wasn't already there," Vogel said. "You still can't shoot at people standing on your front yard, so I don't think it's expanded people's rights to shoot guns that much. I don't think it has, and I don't want people thinking that."