Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Politics

Florida serves as proving ground for progun laws

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TALLAHASSEE — The shooting of Trayvon Martin has brought an avalanche of criticism directed at Florida's "stand your ground" law.

Yet the controversial 2005 law was just one of dozens of pro-gun laws that have gotten their start in Florida — forging the state's "Gunshine" reputation — before spreading to other parts of the country.

Lobbying for passage of such laws has been the powerful National Rifle Association.

"The NRA has been a victim of their own success," said Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach lawyer who fought many of the gun expansion laws as a legislator in the 2000s. "They've won every big issue, so they're left trying to fight over fringe issues. Lots of elected officials are afraid to cross them."

The stand your ground law — at the center of Sanford police's decision not to arrest shooter George Zimmerman — has become one of state's most severely criticized statutes, in the wake of national protests over Martin's death on Feb. 26. Newspaper editorial boards, cable news anchors, police detectives and politicians across the country have lambasted Florida for its law, which has since spread to 24 other states.

Gov. Rick Scott is creating a task force to take a second look at the law, which allows people who feel threatened to use deadly force. "Any time there's a tragedy like this, we're going to look at things," he said, in an interview with the Times/Herald.

From bring-your-guns-to-work laws to all-out bans on local gun restrictions, Florida has become a haven for Second Amendment enthusiasts. Statistics show the pro-gun agenda has triggered more gun sales, more permits and a sharp rise in justifiable homicides.

Florida has about 900,000 licensed concealed weapons carriers, far more than any other state and nearly twice as many as Texas.

The number of annual applications for concealed gun licenses has grown from 26,800 to 123,000 since 1998. (February was a record month for application requests, with 53,835.)

The number of "justifiable homicides" — typically shooting deaths deemed legal under stand your ground — has tripled in the last seven years.

A representative for the NRA, which has given millions of dollars in political donations, did not respond to requests for comment. Florida's top NRA lobbyist, Marion Hammer, declined to comment, citing "media bias and slant" against gun rights.

To be sure, even as gun rights and ownership have expanded, most of the tragic scenarios predicted by opponents of gun rights have not played out. However, murders by firearm have increased 45 percent since 1999, despite an overall dropoff in violent crime, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Police reports show that Zimmerman used a Kel Tec 9mm gun in the Martin shooting. Manufactured by Florida-based manufacturer Kel Tec CNC, the semiautomatic weapon is a popular choice for gun owners, selling for about $350.

Zimmerman was licensed to have the gun despite a prior arrest on a charge of assault on a law enforcement officer, which was dropped and domestic battery complaints. Unlike states that allow police to deny license applications based on personal character and arrest history, in Florida almost anyone who hasn't been convicted of a violent crime can qualify for a weapons license.

In 1987, Florida became the nation's first so-called shall issue state, creating a model for 36 states that now require police to license all eligible applicants for concealed carry permits.

The "shall issue" law — and the controversial stand your ground law — are among several gun rights provisions first passed in Florida and then approved in other states. These laws have made it easier to obtain firearms and carry them into more and more places.

The NRA was behind a 2008 law that allows employees to bring guns to work, so long as they're locked in the car. Several businesses, like the politically well-connected Disney, have long held a "no-guns-at-work" policy for employees. Business groups predicted the law would lead to an increase in workplace massacres and sued to block it. The bill passed, beat the lawsuit, and has not yet to breed an "I-told-you-so" tragedy.

In 2009 and 2010, lawmakers passed "gag order" laws, forbidding doctors and adoption agencies from questioning patients or prospective parents about their gun ownership. Doctors are fighting the NRA-backed law in court.

Even those who don't live in the state are benefiting from Florida's gun rights expansions. Florida is one of only two states that allow nonresidents to obtain mail-order gun licenses.

In general, attempts to crack down on gun ownership have foundered in the Republican-controlled Legislature, although lawmakers have increased penalties for gun-toting criminals.

Penalties have also increased for anyone who offends the rights of gun owners. Several gun rights bills are laced with punitive language and strict penalties. Under the so-called docs-vs.-Glocks gag order law, doctors who ask their patients if they own a gun could lose their license to practice medicine.

County commissioners that try to regulate gun use could be personally fined $5,000 or removed from office by the governor.

Municipalities that keep records of gun owners can be fined up to $5 million. Florida statutes require state attorneys to take up the case of offended gun owners, and to "vigorously prosecute violators," invoking language normally reserved for child sex offenders and violent criminals.

Potential penalties for crossing gun owners also came into play in the Trayvon Martin case, where police opted not to arrest Zimmerman. A police department can be sued if it arrests someone who is later found to be innocent under the stand your ground law.

Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. said in a statement that Florida statutes prohibited police from making a lawful arrest on the night Martin was killed. Bonaparte pointed to the stand your ground law, mentioning that the city could have been "held liable" if Zimmerman was later found innocent.

In a 2005 floor debate in the Florida House, Gelber predicted the stand your ground law would tie the hands of police officers and prevent them from making arrests. The bill passed on a bipartisan 94-20 vote.

"This was a policy whose unintended consequences were very predictable," Gelber said. "Now, we're stuck with the eyes of the world on us for a bad reason."

Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at [email protected]

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