With a bullet

In the last decade, gun murders in Florida have surged 38 percent. Experts are divided over the cause.

click to enlarge Ron Davis holds the last-known picture of his 17-year-old son Jordan Davis, who was shot and killed at this Jacksonville gas station Nov. 23, 2012. - Walter Coker/Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Walter Coker/Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Ron Davis holds the last-known picture of his 17-year-old son Jordan Davis, who was shot and killed at this Jacksonville gas station Nov. 23, 2012.

Michael David Dunn didn’t like the volume of music coming from the SUV parked next to him at a Jacksonville gas station. So he yelled over the bass vibrating from a boxed speaker in the back of a red Dodge Durango and told the men inside to quiet down.

“Kill him,” one of the Durango’s passengers responded, according to Dunn’s account. Dunn, who is white, said one of the young black men in the SUV reached down for a shotgun. Dunn pulled out a 9-millimeter Taurus handgun from his glove box. He fired eight or nine times.

The bullets sliced through the rear passenger door, striking 17-year-old Jordan Davis in the chest and legs. A high school senior with plans to go into the military, Davis died before arriving at the hospital.

While it’s unclear whether Dunn was the aggressor or defending himself with his handgun, shootings like this one on Nov. 23, 2012, now are common in Florida.

Murders by firearms have increased dramatically in the state since 2000, when there were 499 gun murders, according to data from Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Gun murders have since climbed 38 percent — with 691 murders committed with guns in 2011.

Only partial numbers are available for 2012, but from January to June, there were 479 murders in Florida — 358 of them committed with a gun. That’s an 8 percent increase in gun murders compared to the same period in 2011.

Guns are now the weapons of choice in 75 percent of all homicides in Florida. That’s up from 56 percent in 2000.

The rise in gun homicides in Florida comes at a time when the overall murder rate has declined in Florida, and violent crime has dropped statewide.

It also comes at a time when gun control is at the forefront of national debate. Proposals before Congress died last week in a tight Senate vote, but surveys show a majority of Americans favor tougher firearms regulations. Supporters say stricter background checks that were rejected by Congress could lessen the number of gun murders.

In Florida, shootings have received greater attention ever since George Zimmerman cited the state’s “stand your ground” law in the February 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Those on both sides of the gun control debate say the killing emboldened gun owners to carry firearms, and that the increase in guns may have led to the rise in gun murders.

There’s no clear answer as to why gun murders have increased so dramatically. But one fact is hard to ignore: Floridians own more guns than they did a decade ago, when the gun murder rate was significantly lower.

Concealed carry permits and the state’s so-called “stand your ground” law also have emboldened more people to carry firearms, leading to more opportunities for gun murders.

Gary Kleck, a criminology professor at Florida State University and an expert on guns, said the number of people applying for background checks to buy firearms has increased significantly since 2004. Last year, the state processed about 800,000 background checks. And after the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., Florida saw a run on gun sales. In the first three months of this year, the state processed 294,185 background checks, nearly as many as in all of 2004.

Most of those who apply for gun background checks in Florida — 98.5 percent in 2010 — are approved. That’s in part because of problems with record-keeping. Florida lags behind other states in submitting records on mental illnesses to a federal database used in gun background checks, according to a report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. And unlike other states, Florida does not revisit approved background checks if later those gun owners are disqualified from ownership due to findings such as mental illness and felony convictions.

The number of background checks accounts for only a portion of all gun owners. Many more bought firearms from private sellers and at gun shows, and there is no federal background check or reporting requirement on those sales. Florida, which lagged behind the national average in gun ownership a decade ago, is now in line with that national average, which a recent Gallup Poll put it at 47 percent.

“Since President Obama took office, people expected him to get tougher on guns,” Kleck says. “Even though that hasn’t happened yet, a run on gun sales occurred.”

A police shooting in Orlando highlighted Florida’s gun show market. Angry over a car accident, David Alyn Penney is accused of unloading 30-round clips from two assault weapons at a home on Alabama Avenue in St. Cloud on Nov. 21, 2011. When cops arrived, Penney allegedly turned the guns on the officers, shooting one in the foot and injuring a rookie cop with shattered glass.

Nobody died in the exchange, but investigators later learned that Penney bought the assault rifles at a gun show shortly after his 18th birthday. Prosecutors have cut a deal with Penney in which he will plead no contest in exchange for serving eight years in prison; a judge has yet to sign off on the agreement. Prosecutors indicated in court that Penney’s mental health is the reason for the short sentence — a mental health history that might have been discovered if a background check had been required before he bought the assault weapons.


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