I live in Florida, and once again I find that my state is in the center of the national debate on the right of citizens to defend themselves with firearms against street crime. Soon after my family moved to Florida during the summer of 1983, the infamous Bernard Goetz shooting took place in New York City.
On December 22, 1984, Bernard Goetz shot four young black men who tried to mug him on a New York City subway train, resulting in his conviction for illegal possession of a firearm. Although none of his victims died, Bernard Goetz became known as the “subway vigilante” and came to symbolize frustrations with the high crime rates experienced in New York City during the early 1980s. The Goetz shooting sparked a nationwide debate on race and crime in major cities, as well as the legal limits of self-defense. As a result of this case the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun lobbies were able to wage successful campaigns to loosen state and local restrictions on the concealed carrying of firearms.
It was revealed during the trial that the gun that Goetz used in his assault had been legally purchased in Florida and then taken to New York City where gun purchases and possession are much more strictly controlled.
Florida is currently in the national news once again based upon the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin by a self-appointed neighborhood-watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, in his Sanford, FL, townhouse community. Recordings of the 911 call made by Zimmerman to police show him following the 17-year-old, whom he described as suspicious and possibly high on drugs. Martin was unarmed when he was shot, but Zimmerman was not initially charged with a crime, in part because of Florida’s so-called “stand-your-ground law.”
Florida enacted its stand-your-ground legislation in 2005, becoming the first of some twenty states to adopt similar measures. The law protects private individuals from prosecution if police determine they used deadly force in self-defense. This much is relatively uncontroversial, given that individuals have always had a right to defend themselves against attack. These protections are particularly strong if one is attacked inside one’s home, commonly known as the “castle doctrine.”
What makes the stand-your-ground law so controversial is that it absolves the individual of any responsibility to consider other ways to avoid bodily harm. Before stand-your-ground laws, police and law enforcement officials assessed whether a “reasonable person” would have resorted to the level of violence used to thwart an attack. Now the new law reverses that standard and immunizes an individual from criminal charges if he asserts he had a “reasonable” fear of personal harm. Florida’s stand-your-ground law applies wherever a person has a legal right to be, whether in his home, his car, his business, or on a public sidewalk.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida experienced an average of 34 “justifiable homicides” before 2005. Two years after the stand-your-ground law was enacted, the number jumped to more than 100. Similarly disturbing spikes have been found in other states with similar laws.
According to an analysis of FBI data done by the office of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who co-chairs the 650-strong Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization, states that passed stand-your-ground laws experienced a 53.5 percent increase in “justifiable homicides” in the three years following enactment. States without such laws saw a 4.2 percent increase.
The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys opposed stand-your-ground laws, arguing that they were unnecessary and likely a danger to public safety. In a 2007 report they foreshadowed the Trayvon Martin tragedy. “Although the spirit of the law may be to allow the public to feel safer, the expansions may instead create a sense of fear from others, particularly strangers,” the report said, concluding that enactment would have a “disproportionately negative effect on minorities, persons from lower socio-economic status, and young adults/juveniles” that are often unjustly stereotyped as suspects.
According to the March 2012 update of the Violence Policy Center’s (VPC) Concealed Carry Killers online resource, the deadly shooting of Trayvon Martin is unfortunately only one example of at least 402 victims killed in thirty-two states since May 2007 in incidents involving private citizens legally allowed to carry concealed handguns.
VPC legislative director Kristen Rand states, “The tragic killing of Trayvon Martin is the result of Florida’s gun laws that allow virtually anyone to carry a concealed loaded handgun in public. While Florida’s ‘shoot-first’ law is the reason that George Zimmerman has not been arrested, it’s Florida’s concealed-carry law that enabled Zimmerman to confront Trayvon Martin with a loaded handgun in the first place.”
Despite the current national outrage over the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Congress may soon act on legislation that would actually expand the ability of people like Zimmerman to carry their guns to virtually every state. Two bills have been introduced in the US Senate (S. 2188 and S. 2213) that would significantly expand the ability of concealed-carry permit holders to carry their loaded handguns nationwide. The bills would force all states that issue concealed-carry permits to recognize all out-of-state permits, even if the person could not qualify for a permit in that state.
Critics of strict gun control have stated that the facts portrayed in the research produced by the Violence Policy Center are biased and misleading. For example, the 402 statistic mentioned above is actually over a span of five years, or eighty people a year. Those numbers include eighty-three from committing suicide. These are a relatively small number out of the millions of legal handgun owners. For example, Florida has issued 2,031,106 licenses since adopting its law in 1987, and had 843,463 licensed permit holders as of July 31, 2011. That is just Florida alone. Based upon these numbers, it is obvious that not all Florida citizens that are legally allowed to carry concealed handguns are dangerous people. In fact, gun ownership in Florida may actually be reducing the crime rate.
In 1987 when Florida began to enact more liberal gun ownership legislation, critics warned that the “sunshine state” would become the “gunshine state.” Contrary to their predictions, homicide rates dropped faster than the national average. Furthermore, through 1997 only one permit holder out of the over 350,000 permits issued was convicted of homicide, according to Gary Kleck’s book Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control.
If the rest of the country behaved as Florida’s permit holders did, the U.S. would have the lowest homicide rate in the world. David Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute, commented on Florida’s concealed-carry experience in a Los Angeles Times article, stating: “What we can say with some confidence is that allowing more people to carry guns does not cause an increase in crime. In Florida where 315,000 permits have been issued, there are only five known instances of violent gun crime by a person with a permit. This makes a permit-holding Floridian the cream of the crop of law-abiding citizens, 840 times less likely to commit a violent firearm crime than a randomly selected Floridian without a permit.”
Effect on Retailers
There is no doubt that Floridians are applying for concealed-weapons permits at such a rapid rate that the state has had to increase the speed and number of places that one can apply for a permit. Today with more than 800,000 issued, nearly one in every fifteen Florida adults has a license to carry a concealed weapon, according to data compiled by the state. Among Floridians over 18 years of age, about 6.5 percent have applied for and received permits to carry a concealed weapon. Add the 104,210 permits brought into the state by out-of-state visitors and the total rises to 906,924 as of February 2012, according to Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which administers the licensing program.
Only time will tell whether this level of concealed-weapon permits will decrease crime in Florida or lead to an unprecedented increase in the use of handguns in both legitimate and illegitimate cases of self-defense. Clearly a shopping trip in the future will expose more people to firearm use than ever before, perhaps even more than the Wild West days of our nation’s early history. With this many guns in the hands of non-law enforcement personnel, the retail industry may have to develop protective systems and new policies to ensure the safety of shoppers in its stores, strip centers, and malls without violating the constitutional rights of US citizens.