Thursday, January 18, 2018
Public safety

Florida gun laws shoot down our right to safety

Normally, we place great value on individual safety, on human life.

We'll pay generous taxes for law enforcement and fire protection long after we've let other public services go to pot.

In schools, it's not just dodgeball that gym teachers have banned. In some of my sons' phys ed classes, even tag has been forbidden.

And when a 14-year-old boy was seriously injured walking to Spring Hill's Explorer K-8 School last month? The neighbors said there should have been a bus for him. Never mind that cutting routes for kids who live close to school saves $800,000 a year. What is that compared to the safety of a child?

But bring guns into the argument, and suddenly a death or two isn't such a big deal, nothing that can't be prevented with a good, thorough National Rifle Association safety class.

Sure, we cherish our right to live securely. But not as much as our right to own guns.

Gun people, of course, say that firearms themselves ensure safety. In response, I present the following:

A promising, kind-hearted young woman was killed when a parishioner's Ruger 9mm pistol went off in the closet of a St. Petersburg church. It was an accident, we heard. No one was to blame.

Okay, but what was an item designed exclusively to kill people doing in a place built for a religion that teaches every single soul is sacred?

A boy in Ruskin was injured by a falling bullet that had been fired into the air on New Year's Eve.

"Here we have a 12-year-old kid fighting for his life because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," said a Hillsborough Sheriff's Office spokesman.

No, the boy was exactly where he was supposed to be, in his own front yard. He was hurt because some people think that mindlessly firing weapons into the air is good fun.

In Hernando last week, a brilliant woman, a professor at St. Petersburg College, was allegedly shot to death by her husband, a man with a drinking problem, anger issues and an arsenal of more than 100 guns.

Review all of the above incidents and tell me we don't have a problem. Guns may give a feeling of safety to each individual gun owner. But with so many owners, a few will inevitably be knuckleheads or worse, and we end up with a significant public hazard.

We've come to one of those points, as we do periodically, when such incidents pile up, when it becomes clear that our attitudes and laws regarding guns are absolutely nuts.

But don't expect a sensible response — a few more restrictions. Expect fewer because even normally courageous lawmakers, such as state Sens. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, cower in fear of the NRA.

"No legislator is going to step out of line and become a target for (former NRA president and longtime Tallahassee lobbyist) Marion Hammer. They'd be out of office the next election," said Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Hayhoe is bracing himself for the introduction, sometime in the next few years, of an "open carry" bill, which is exactly what it sounds like — a law that would finally fulfill the NRA's dream of turning Florida into a modern Deadwood.

Meanwhile, we're dealing with the "stand your ground" law, which has resulted in a threefold increase in claims of justified homicide since it passed in 2005, Times staff writer John Barry recently reported, including a case where a guy killed a neighborhood dad in an argument over skateboarding.

And we're still sorting out the consequences of last year's "preemption" law, which reiterates that no local ordinance or administrative rule can be tougher than state gun laws, and adds that anyone trying to enforce these rules — a police officer, say, or a county commissioner — can personally face a steep fine.

That's why there's no stopping folks from bringing guns to Brooksville's city parks and why the Hernando County Commission recently decided it had no legal standing to stop the sale of guns out of a home in a quiet Spring Hill neighborhood.

Now we learn that we can't stop people from carrying guns in state forests, which are refuges for hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers. A recent memo from an attorney with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services warned the Florida Forest Service that "the clear language of the (preemption) statute renders any attempts to regulate firearms, with certain exceptions, null and void."

True, the memo says, it remains a misdemeanor to fire a gun in a public place. But because of confusion about what, exactly, qualifies as a public place — just campgrounds and parking lots, for example, or the entire forest — local Forest Service officials are ordering officers to tread lightly.

At one time, officers could fine people caught target shooting in the forest, said Winnie Schreiber, manager of the Withlacoochee Forestry Center. Now "we're asking them not to do that."

Better say "please."

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