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<p></p>As gun sales in Florida increase, purchase denials are unchanged

Two years ago, after a mentally disturbed man went on a shooting rampage in a Connecticut elementary school, killing 26, a national debate ensued over whether lawmakers should enact tighter restrictions on guns.

But calls for gun control spurred a somewhat unforeseen effect, as thousands of people flocked to gun retailers. Here in Florida, more people purchased guns in the weeks after Sandy Hook than ever before. The numbers stayed high, even as federal lawmakers declined to pass any major new gun restrictions.

Now, two years later, gun sales are still booming in Florida.

On Black Friday alone, the state handled more than 8,300 requests for background checks related to gun purchases, a record for the day after Thanksgiving and the third-busiest day on record, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. About 23,000 requests were processed Thanksgiving week, while a typical week averages about 14,000, FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey told the state's Cabinet last week.

Yet as gun sales have gone up, the rate at which people are denied a firearms purchase has remained essentially the same. That's despite a 2013 state law that aimed to make it more difficult for people with mental illnesses to buy them.

And still, mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary remain a periodic occurrence. Last month, three were shot on the campus of Florida State University. In that case, too, the shooter had reportedly been in the throes of mental illness.

Amid all of this, a question remains: With so many people buying guns, can anything more be done to ensure that they don't end up in the wrong hands?

• • •

Between December 2012 and November 2014, the FDLE processed 1,646,081 requests for background checks on people seeking to buy guns in the state. That includes the weeks immediately after Sandy Hook, when the applications surged to more than 131,000 in December alone. The requests continued at levels higher than the previous year until the summer of 2013, around the time that the national gun control debate fizzled.

Bucking criticism from some pro-gun advocates, Gov. Rick Scott signed House Bill 1355 in May 2013, which was designed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

The new law required that people who voluntarily commit themselves for mental health treatment under the state's Baker Act receive notice that they may be prohibited from buying guns once released. While they're deemed a danger to themselves or others, their names are added to a national database of people prohibited from buying guns. People who are involuntarily committed were already added to that list.

Eighteen months later, FDLE numbers indicate that the law apparently had little impact on the percentage of people who were denied a firearms transaction. Of the more than 1 million background checks the FDLE processed between December 2012 and November 2014, just 23,043 — about 1.3 percent of the total — ultimately had their purchase denied.

In the two years prior to that the percentage of denials was slightly higher, at 1.4 percent.

State Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, who co-sponsored the 2013 bill, said he suspects that the numbers say more about the state of mental health care in the Sunshine State than they do about gun control. He noted that Florida consistently ranks near the bottom of all states in the amount of funding allocated to mental health care.

"I think it's a fair thing to say that fewer people probably are being identified as mentally ill," Dudley said. "To me it makes sense if you have this population of people that are sick and they realize there's no treatment."

• • •

Even if the state offered more mental health services, it seems unlikely that would have stopped Myron May, the man responsible for the FSU shooting.

May, an FSU alumnus, went to law school in Texas before working as an assistant district attorney in New Mexico. He abruptly resigned from his job in October and moved back to Florida. It remains unclear exactly where or when he bought the .38-caliber semiautomatic handgun he used in the Nov. 20 shooting before being killed by Tallahassee police.

Records indicate he was exhibiting signs of a severe mental illness and was hospitalized briefly in September. When he came back to Florida, he told at least one person he had bought a handgun and had visited a gun range in New Mexico, according to news accounts.

State Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, the chief sponsor of the 2013 law, said May's story is enough reason for similar laws to be implemented nationwide. So far, only eight states have enacted laws that, like Florida's, prohibit gun sales to people who seek voluntary treatment, she said.

"Had this been implemented in Texas or any of the states he visited, he would not have been able to get a gun," Watson said. "Clearly this man had a change (in his behavior) and it was known."

In Florida, Watson said she thinks more could be done to ensure the law is enforced. But gun advocates say there is already plenty of enforcement.

"I believe with our federal background checks, we cover everything we can," said Bruce Kitzis, general manager of Shooter's World in Tampa. "The last thing any reputable store wants is to sell a gun to the wrong person."

As for the most recent spike in gun sales, Kitzis said business has been noticeably brisk, but it always is during the holiday season.

"I've not heard a lot of talk in the store about events that have been going on," he said. "The majority I see are just people who enjoy shooting sports."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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