Florida boosts gun rights, igniting a debate

A new law allows residents to employ 'deadly force' in public places - part of a new nationwide drive by gun lobby.

When 16-year-old Mark Drewes knocked on a neighbor's door in Boca Raton, Fla., and then ran away as a prank, he was shot dead by homeowner Jay Levin. Mr. Levin, who said afterward that he mistook the boy for a robber out to attack him, was sentenced to 52 weekends in jail for manslaughter.

Now, 18 months later, the state has enacted a law that opponents fear will only encourage more gun owners like Levin to adopt a "shoot first, think later" approach - and this time get away without punishment. But others see the new measure, which allows people to meet "force with force" in public places without fear of punishment, as a vital way for people to protect their homes and families.

The law is kicking off a fierce new debate over the availability of guns in society - one that extends way beyond Florida.

Eighteen years ago, the state adopted legislation allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons in public places. It became the impetus for dozens of other states to pass similar laws.

Now the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) has chosen Florida to launch this latest gun initiative, in hopes of once again taking its campaign nationwide. Consequently, lobbyists on both sides are gearing up for a national fight.

This law "worries me terribly," says Sarah Brady, chair of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "This is just a license to kill."

Building on a preexisting statute known as the "castle doctrine," the new law seals the right of residents to employ "deadly force" to protect their homes and vehicles.

Most significantly, it now extends that right to public places, too, meaning that a person no longer has a duty to retreat from what they perceive to be a threatening situation before they are entitled to pull the trigger. Members of the public may now stand their ground and "meet force with force," it states, without fear of criminal prosecution or civil litigation. "It's common sense to allow people to defend themselves," said Gov. Jeb Bush (R) as he signed the new law.

OK Corral or safety measure?

Ms. Brady believes that far from making sense, the new law provides gun owners a legal screen behind which to hide during confrontations and "threatens to enable every rogue with an itchy trigger finger." "It's a terrible precedent," she says. "I am sorry that Florida had to be a test-ground, but I think what has gone on there should be a wakeup call for the rest of the country to stand up and fight this."

Gun advocates reject the notion that the new law leaves too great a margin of error, however. They also dismiss critics' talk of a Wild West revival and the assertion by Democratic Rep. Irv Slosberg, one of only 20 state lawmakers who opposed the bill, that it will promote vigilantism, "sell more guns, and possibly turn Florida into the OK Corral."

The law empowers the public, they argue, and should be used to send a powerful message to would-be criminals across the country. "You can't expect a victim to wait before taking action to protect himself and his family and say, 'Excuse me, Mr. Criminal, are here you breaking into my home to rape and kill me or are you just here to beat me up and steal my TV set? And by the way what kind of weapon do you have?' " Marion Hammer, an NRA lobbyist who was a driving force behind the bill, told the legislature during debate.

Ms. Hammer, a former president of the NRA, adds: "This puts the law on the side of the victim. For too long, the law has been protecting criminals. Law-abiding people only want to be able to protect themselves, and they are sick and tired of our court system saying they can't."

Why Florida is the launchpad

Florida seemed an obvious target for the NRA as a launchpad for such legislation. It has long been a supporter of more rights for gun owners. Not only was it an early adherent of allowing concealed weapons, but the castle-doctrine legislation moved through the state legislature with alacrity. The measure was unopposed in the GOP-dominated Senate and passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 94 to 20. Many Democrats admitted that they did not want to appear soft on crime by voting against it.

State Attorney General Charlie Crist (R), due to announce his candidacy for the 2006 gubernatorial race this week, was among law-enforcement figures who backed the bill, though others such as Miami police chief John Timoney and Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne spoke against it, warning that it is ripe for misuse.

Higher firearm deaths

Florida suffers 11.3 deaths by firearms per 100,000 people. The national average is 10.5. The NRA says there is no evidence that relaxed gun controls are to blame for Florida's higher-than-average toll. The lobbying group points out that since Florida enacted its "concealed carry" legislation 18 years ago, violent crime has been almost halved in the state. Of the more than 1 million Floridians who have been issued with gun permits, it adds, less than 1 percent have had them revoked for misuse.

"In 1987, the gun-haters said all the same things as they are saying now - that there would be blood in the streets, that Florida would become the Wild West. None of that happened then and it isn't going to happen now," says Hammer.

Brady - whose husband, former White House press secretary Jim Brady, was left disabled after being shot in the head during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan - speaks as a victim as well as a campaigner. "This law isn't a deterrent, it sets a terrible precedent. At ballgames, in bars, on the streets, this is going to endanger the lives of innocent folks and put them in the line of fire, just like my husband was," she says.

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