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Sticking to their guns

By Mark Schwed

Florida has about 18 million residents. And 20 million firearms.

No one knows how many residents own guns because records are not required. But officials do know that the number of people who carry concealed weapons is escalating.

In 1987, it became much easier for residents to carry concealed weapons when the legislature passed a law streamlining the process. Before then, a concealed-weapon license was good only in the county in which it was issued, so to carry a gun statewide required 67 separate permits. Now, only one application is necessary and it is good not only in Florida, but also in 28 other states.

Since the law changed, 1 million Floridians have applied for permits. Currently, there are 342,743 Floridians with licenses to pack heat, including 24,876 in Palm Beach County, 3,516 in Martin County, and 4,775 in St. Lucie County. Floridians between the ages of 36 and 50 (127,000 people) make up the largest group. Close behind are those 51 to 65 years old (94,000).

About 30,000 people apply for new licenses each year. Before 9/11, about 25,000 applied annually.

"We did see a spike after the terrorist attacks," says Buddy Bevis, a spokesman at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which issues the licenses. "Up until that point it was a flatline."

And more women are among those lining up to pass background checks, be fingerprinted and pay the $117 fee that's required to get a permit, which is good for three years.

"When I went to the sheriff's department to get my concealed-weapons permit, there were probably 20 other women in line," says Cheryl Szynkowski, 57, of Lake Park, a first-time gun owner. Some 50,000 women are licensed to carry a weapon in Florida, about 14 percent of all permit holders.

But while weapons permits are rising in Florida, violent crime is dropping.

From 1996 to 2003, the rate of murder, forcible sex offenses, robbery and aggravated assault in the state decreased 30.7 percent, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Florida's declining rate is in line with a trend that has seen the nation's violent crime rate drop 25 percent over the same period.

Is there a connection between increasing gun ownership and the falling crime rate? Depends whom you ask.

No one disputes the fact that the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens. "Fewer than 2 percent of handguns and 1 percent of all guns will ever be used in a violent crime," says Gary Kleck, an expert on gun statistics at Florida State University. "Most gun ownership is related to outdoor recreation rather than crime."

But experts are divided on why crime rates are falling.

FDLE spokesman Tom Berlinger says "a combination of things" has brought violent crime rates down, including "get tough" laws like 10-20-life and three strikes, and tougher sentencing guidelines that require violent felons to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

"As repeat offenders get caught for serious offenses, they're staying in prison," he says. He also credits private gun ownership and more concealed-weapons permits. "I don't have any scientific evidence to support that, but if I put myself in the mind of a criminal, you had better consider that as a factor."

Criminologists say other factors — such as the country's economic upswing, fewer people in the most crime-prone age group, and the softening of the 1980s crack epidemic — play a role in the nationwide drop in violent crime.

Gun advocates point to the number of guns in private hands.

"I've watched the crime rate dip drastically in the state of Florida over the last 10 years," says Paul M. Douglas, 63, of Greenacres, a Colorado cop for 28 years who now trains police, military and civilians in weapons and tactics. "And that's because of armed citizens. In the past 10 years, I've certified 6,000 people in West Palm Beach" to use a weapon.

But Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, says gun ownership does not stop violent crime.

"Massachusetts, which has every gun control law you can think of, has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the nation. We have the opposite in Florida," Hayhoe says.

He points out that despite its falling crime rate, Florida has two of the most violent cities in the U.S. — Tampa and Miami, ranked No. 2 and No. 3 for most violent crimes per capita in 2002 — and the state is one of the most violent in the country (second only to Arizona in 2000).

"Most legislatures would go into special session over that alone," Hayhoe says.

*FW Note:

"But while weapons permits are rising in Florida, violent crime is dropping...Is there a connection between increasing gun ownership and the falling crime rate?...But experts are divided on why crime rates are falling."

History demonstrates that fear of punishment has never been a disincentive toward crime of any type, for a determined criminal. History equally demonstrates that criminals are less likely, by orders of magnitude, to select targets for their criminal activity when they know there will be an armed and prepared defender that has the will to combat their aggression.

More guns, less crime. Hmmm...

Think there's a connection?

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