IF IT BOGGLES your mind that George Zimmerman, a 29-year-old with a gun, could be acquitted after pursuing — and killing — an unarmed 17-year-old, here’s another brain teaser: How could Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, receive a 20-year prison sentence for firing a bullet into a wall near her abusive ex-husband, even though no one was harmed?
It’s true. Florida is one of the worst places to fire a gun into the air, even as it appears to be one of the best places to actually shoot at a person.
Here’s the story: In 1999, Florida’s “tough-on-crime” lawmakers passed one of nation’s harshest gun laws. Known as “10-20-life,” the law stipulates that a person who commits a felony with a gun gets an automatic 10 years in prison. A person who fires that gun gets an automatic 20 years. And a person who injures someone or kills someone with the gun gets 25-to-life.
“The law was intended for direct, blatant acts of crime, like someone robbing a liquor store,” former state senator Victor D. Crist, the author of the law, told me in a phone interview. “Circumstances where Grandpa goes out on New Year’s Eve and fires a gun in the air . . . that wasn’t the intent.”
But over the years, the law has netted scores of people Crist never imagined. Since the act of pulling out a gun and firing it can be considered “aggravated assault,” people who fire warning shots into the air risk a 20-year prison sentence.
Alexander, whose ex-husband admitted that she was afraid of his abuse, is not the only one in prison for shooting at nothing.
Ronald Thompson, 62, a disabled veteran, fired two shots into the ground to protect an elderly woman from her violent 17-year-old grandson. State Attorney Angela Corey — the same prosecutor in the Zimmerman case — charged him with four counts of aggravated assault. Thompson was sentenced to 20 years in prison, a punishment that the judge in the case called a “crime in itself.” (He is currently awaiting a new trial.)
Orville Lee Wollard, a former auxiliary police force member, shot a bullet into the wall to scare away his daughter’s abusive boyfriend. Prosecutors offered him probation. But he wanted to be exonerated at trial. Now he’s serving 20 years.
Erik Weyant, 22, fired shots in the air to disperse a group of drunk men who accosted him in a parking lot outside a bar and blocked his car. No one was hurt. But he’s in for 20 years.
In many cases, the fact that they chose to fire a warning shot, instead of aiming to kill, was used as evidence against them at trial, said Greg Newburn of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. If you were truly in fear of your life, the logic goes, you would aim at the chest, not the wall.
Florida lawmakers, in their infinite wisdom, began to notice that a lot of people were getting severely punished simply for defending themselves. But instead of repealing the Draconian measure, they passed another one: the “stand your ground” law.
“The intent was to provide assurance and safety that if you are protecting yourself, you don’t get caught up in any statute,” Crist, who is also a co-sponsor of “stand your ground,” told me.
Just as 10-20-life was meant for criminals — the robber at the liquor store — “stand your ground” was meant for victims — the person who shoots a carjacker. The idea was that the criminal should get 20 years, and the victim should walk free.
But the world isn’t always neatly divided into criminals and victims. Sometimes “self defense” is in the eye of the beholder. If Trayvon Martin had survived — and testified that Zimmerman threw the first punch — then who would have been the criminal and who would have been the victim? And had Alexander shot and killed her abusive ex-husband, would she have had a better chance of getting immunity with a “stand your ground” defense?
“I think so,” said her attorney Michael Dowd.
So in the sick logic of Florida’s gun laws, the message is clear: If you are going to shoot, shoot to kill. You stand a better chance of walking free.Farah Stockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @fstockman.