MIAMI (Reuters) - Shortly after police arrived at the scene of Trayvon Martin’s death at a gated community in the central Florida town of Sanford, officers seized the alleged murder weapon, a 9mm handgun.
For the next 45 days until the arrest this week of George Zimmerman on a charge of second-degree murder, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot the unarmed 17-year-old teenager continued to hold a concealed weapons permit as allowed under Florida law.
Critics of gun laws in the Sunshine State have seized on the Zimmerman case as an example of the need for tighter regulation of concealed weapons permitting.
Thanks in part to the successful lobbying by the National Rifle Association (NRA), Florida has some of the most lenient gun laws in the United States and by some counts leads the nation in gun ownership, with about 6.5 percent of all adults licensed to carry a concealed weapon, state records show.
New applications for concealed gun permits have quadrupled since 1998.
“We’re not surprised the Trayvon Martin shooting happened in Florida,” said Dennis Henigan, vice president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “We have called Florida the NRA’s armed utopia.”
A spokesman for the NRA was not immediately available for comment on Friday.
Martin was walking home from a convenience store on the night of February 26 when he encountered Zimmerman and an altercation ensued which resulted in Martin’s death from a single gunshot to the chest.
Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman and turned the case over to prosecutors, citing Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, enacted in 2005 and now in effect in more than 20 other states. The law provides shooters with wide latitude to claim a killing was in self-defense if they fear bodily harm.
The “Stand Your Ground” law was just one of several pro-gun laws that have originated in Florida and been adopted in other states, earning it the nickname “Gunshine” state.
Florida lawmakers last year passed a measure to prohibit cities from enacting gun ordinances stricter than those of the state, with heavy fines if they transgress.
That law is having unforeseen repercussions for city officials in Tampa preparing for Republican Party’s National Convention in late August. They issued a list of items that will not be allowed in the “Clean Zone” being set up to control protesters outside the convention, including clubs, chains and pepper spray.
But they say they cannot ban guns in that area.
“If you’re walking in the convention area, you can’t have a water pistol but if you’re licensed properly to carry a concealed firearm you can,” said Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt, adding that this flew in “the face of common sense.”
The state has taken some steps to control gun violence.
In 1999, state lawmakers passed the “10-20-Life” law, also known as “Use a gun and you’re done,” which increased minimum mandatory sentences for crime with guns, which in 1998 was a three-year minimum.
The number of violent gun crimes dropped 30 percent statewide over the next six years, according to the Department of Corrections.
Florida Governor Rick Scott sees nothing wrong with the state’s gun ownership numbers. “We have a logical process” to obtain a concealed weapons permit and to own a gun, he told Reuters, noting that he announced a task force last month in the wake of the Sanford shooting to look into “citizen safety,” including the state’s Stand Your Ground law.
“We are at a 40-year low in our crime rate in our state,” he said. “From a public safety standpoint we are absolutely heading in the right direction.”
The Brady Campaign says that number is deceptive, pointing out that crime is dropping all around the country at a faster rate than in Florida.
“Florida has a stunning record of failure in fighting violent crime,” said Henigan, adding that it finished in the top five states for violent crimes “every single year for the last 15 years.”
Jon Gutmacher, an Orlando attorney and defender of gun rights, said he believes the problem is not the availability of guns but that many gun owners do not understand laws governing when they can use them.
He sells a 300-page book titled “Florida Firearms - Law, Use and Ownership” which explains state and federal laws on firearms, weapons and self-defense issues.
“Your right to use a firearm and deadly force is very limited,” Gutmacher said. “People think they know the law and find out they don’t know when a situation occurs and wind up getting in terrible trouble.”
He said many of the concealed weapons courses for gun owners focus primarily on gun safety and do little to educate them about situations when they can use their guns in self-defense.
“It’s a lack of education,” Gutmacher said. “When someone gets through with one of those courses, they don’t know the law. It’s that simple.”
The number of new and renewed concealed weapons permits issued in Florida has risen steadily in recent years, hitting a monthly record in March with 53,835.
More than 919,000 concealed weapons permits have been issued to Florida residents as of March 31, according to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which is charged with licensing weapons in the state.
Observers say the increasing numbers are a combination of tough economic times and worries that federal standards might become stricter under U.S. President Barack Obama.
In Zimmerman’s case, he was licensed to carry a concealed weapon despite a prior arrest for assault on a law enforcement officer and domestic battery complaints by a former girlfriend.
Unlike other states, such as New York, where police can deny license applications based on broader examination of an individual’s personal record, in Florida almost anyone can qualify for a concealed weapons license, unless charged with a felony.
Officials say Zimmerman’s arrest means his concealed weapons permit will now be revoked by a letter from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which handles gun licenses.
Sterling Ivey, a department spokesman, said the revocation occurs once the agency is notified by law enforcement of a felony arrest or conviction. That does not mean Zimmerman would be required to give up any other gun he may own besides the Kel-Tec 9mm handgun now in police custody.
“The only thing we have control over is the permit to carry it in a concealed fashion,” Ivey said.
Ivey said state law requires gun purchasers to undergo a background check, but no permit is required to own a weapon.
Additional reporting by Barbara Liston and Michael Peltier; Writing by David Adams; Editing by Eric Walsh