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Firing a 'warning shot' at an attacker legal in Florida

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a law on Friday that builds on the state's controversial “stand your ground” self-defense rules by allowing citizens to brandish weapons and fire warning shots to ward off attackers.

The warning shot law was inspired in part by the public outcry over the case of a woman sentenced to a 20-year prison term under the state's sentencing guidelines because she fired a gun at her abusive husband, who was not injured.

"Self-defense is not a crime. It’s a constitutional right," said Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association's lead lobbyist in Florida. "Prosecutors have been violating the rights of Florida citizens and this law will stop that."

The case of Marissa Alexander, who was convicted in 2012 of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, ignited protests from supporters who contrasted her treatment with that of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted on self-defense grounds last year in the shooting death of a black, unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin.

Under Florida's 2005 "stand your ground" law, people who use deadly force to defend themselves - rather than retreating to avoid confrontation - can be immune from prosecution if they have a reasonable fear of serious injury.

The new law's changes to "stand your ground" received little discussion when the bill passed. Some gun rights supporters have recently raised concerns that the confusing language could actually weaken self-defense protections.

Anticipating the new law, a judge recently postponed a retrial for Alexander, whose conviction was overturned on appeal. The law still allows prosecutors to bring charges if they doubt a self-defense claim.

A less controversial measure, also signed by Scott on Friday, protects school children from being barred from classes for fashioning a pistol out of snacks or blocks, or pointing their fingers at classmates and going “bang-bang.”

The “pop tart bill,” as it was dubbed after cases in some states where students got in trouble for chewing or shaping breakfast snacks into guns, was another priority of the NRA.

   “It’s about children who were being mistreated by administrators who lack common sense or rational judgment when dealing with children simply being children,” Hammer said.

(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Eric Beech and Bill Trott)

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