Florida stands poised to become the 26th state to approve permitless — sometimes called “constitutional” — carry legislation, which will allow civilians to carry concealed firearms into public spaces without a license, background check or firearm safety training. A recent poll by the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab shows that three-quarters of Floridians oppose the bill. As Floridians apparently know better than their elected officials, public health research overwhelmingly shows that relaxing firearm regulations contributes to increases in violent crime as well as firearm-related death and injury.
Take for example a recent study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which tracks the rate of firearm-related assaults following firearm deregulation across 36 states. They discovered a 24% increase in firearm-related assaults in states that relaxed their regulations governing concealed carry. The study also reveals that states that retained a requirement for live-fire gun safety training did not experience a similar jump in firearm related assaults. Unfortunately for residents of Florida, the proposed legislation would remove any requirement for safety training along with background checks or licensing. After the legislation passes, as it inevitably will, the state can expect to see a 22% jump in firearm homicides, a 13%-15% jump in violent crime and a spike in gun thefts.
Place these grim statistics against the backdrop of policies like “stand your ground” laws that allow some to avoid criminal prosecution after using deadly force. While supporters claim the laws provide everyone an equal right to defend themselves, the laws have been shown to incentivize armed individuals to use lethal force as a default solution, even in conflicts that might have been solved peacefully. Since the law’s passage in 2005, we have witnessed many justice-distorting consequences, including the intensification of existing inequities in criminal law. Stand your ground laws encourage vigilante aggression, such as armed policing of public space, resulting in senseless killings of unarmed individuals. Imagine how the introduction of more guns into the hands of untrained, unvetted and unlicensed individuals will affect incidents of road rage across the Sunshine State.
The introduction of more unregulated guns into public space, coupled with a selective legal power to use them, also raises the stakes of what were once harmless mistakes. Last September, a motorist invoked the stand your ground law after shooting an unarmed University of Tampa student, Carson Senfield, who was celebrating his 19th birthday. Investigators believe Senfield tried to enter the car after mistaking it for his Uber. Since stand your ground laws presume the innocence of the shooter who claims to have been “in fear for his life,” no arrests have been made.
While stand your ground laws raise the stakes of “accidents” or in-the-moment eruptions of anger, they also provide a selective license to kill. On Feb. 3, 2018, Dominic Jerome “D.J.” Broadus drove to Baker County to meet up with Gardner Fraser, with whom he had maintained an on-again, off-again covert relationship for seven or eight months. A month earlier, Broadus had played a prank on Fraser, threatening to “out” him to his rural community. It may have been his fear of being revealed that motivated Fraser to execute Broadus after inviting him over for a sexual encounter. Fraser claimed to law enforcement that he shot Broadus in self-defense, but there is substantial evidence contradicting that claim: two execution-style shots behind Broadus’s ear, as he lay on the ground bleeding from the first two shots and the mysterious disappearance of Broadus’ phone. Also, in spite of Fraser’s effort to delete all relevant texts before handing over his phone to law enforcement, digital forensic cloud technology revealed the irrefutable evidence of the men’s prior intimate relationship. Yet Fraser has not been charged with criminal homicide.
On the flipside, firearms and stand your ground laws often prove useless for those who most need them, including women who try to defend themselves from their largest statistical threat, their own boyfriends and (ex)husbands. Marissa Alexander received a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years after being convicted of aggravated assault with a lethal weapon. This was after firing a warning shot in 2010 to escape from her abusive husband. Callie Adams was similarly criminalized for “standing her ground” against her spouse, who was choking her in the couple’s car in 2011.
As the laws governing self-defense shift to exonerate armed individuals who act aggressively rather than defensively while those who most need to defend themselves find themselves criminalized, the introduction of more unregulated guns into public space can only spell a heightened state of danger for the multitudes.
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But maybe the fear and mayhem are the point, because a suspicious, panic-stricken population is more likely to support reactionary policies and to invest in militaristic, lethal solutions to their pressing security concerns. Widespread panic breeds greater demand for firearms and fuels the paranoid investment in armed citizenship. While our lawmakers reassure us that “an armed citizenry is a polite society,” theirs is a pathway to mutually assured destruction.
Caroline Light teaches gender and ethnic studies at Harvard University. She is the author of “Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.” Follow her at @carolineelight.