When conversation about Florida’s “stand your ground” law begins, the word “gun” tends to seep in.
According to the Tampa Bay Times’ landmark series on the law, two thirds of stand your ground defendants used a gun.
“Florida has become a poster child of senseless gun violence,” Lucia McBath, the mother of 17-year-old Jordan Davis who was shot in Jacksonville by a man who claimed stand your ground, told legislators in a stand your ground hearing on Nov. 8.
With cases like Davis’, where a gun owner brandished his weapon and shot a car full of teens in a confrontation over loud music, it may seem as if gun ownership leads to increased cases of the controversial law.
WUFT News research, however, indicates contrary results.
A county-by-county analysis of concealed weapons permit ownership shows no correlation between the two. When the eligible population for permit ownership is compared to the county’s population, the counties with the most dominant permit ownership are clustered in the northern part of the state.
Conversely, the counties with the most stand your ground cases are clustered in the southern part of the state.
WUFT reached a close approximation of the eligible population by calculating the population over 20 in each county (you must be 21 to obtain a permit, but neither the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services nor the Census Bureau report the over 21 population) and by subtracting each county’s inmates.
The result shows that Dixie County has the most permits with 15 percent of its eligible population owning a license, followed by Okaloosa County with 12.3 percent and Jackson County with 11.4 percent.
Among them, there is only one stand your ground case, in Jackson – and it was with a knife.
In fact, among the top ten counties with the most dominant gun permit ownership — Dixie, Okaloosa, Jackson, Santa Rosa, Nassau, Clay, Lake, Wakulla, Monroe and Baker — there are only nine stand your ground cases. Among the other counties: 228.
In rural Dixie County, Maj. Scott Harden of the sheriff’s office is accustomed to seeing guns.
“I’ve grown up here, spent my life here,” Harden said. “Everyone I’ve ever known has owned guns.”
Harden got his first gun in middle school, long before the law for a concealed weapons permit was enacted in 1987.
Harden attributes the popularity of guns to the county’s landscape, not violence.
“For years and years, people earned their living working in the woods,” he said, “so it doesn’t surprise me.”
Dixie is largely untouched by the crimes that affect other parts of the state, like stand your ground cases, Harden said.
The county’s violent crime rate is among the lowest in the state at 0.36 percent, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s 2012 statistics.
Self-defense issues haven’t been common in the county even before stand your ground was enacted, when Florida’s self defense laws did not include a provision removing the duty to retreat, Harden said.
“We never saw a large number of those then and now that they want to call it stand your ground, we don’t see a big change,” he said.
“Life in Dixie County is still life in Dixie County.”
Travel 170 miles west, and many of the same ideas still apply.
In Jackson County, Chief Deputy Donnie Branch sees grandmothers coming into the station requesting a permit.
“I’ve seen 78-, 79-year-old grandmothers coming in to get a fingerprint before,” Branch said. “I’ve seen 25-year-old people, too. It varies.”
Two thoroughfares run through the predominantly rural county west of Tallahassee: Interstate 10 and U.S. 231.
“There’s a lot of people who travel those roads,” Branch said, “a lot of good people and a lot of bad people. So, people are concerned about their safety and they want something to protect themselves with. So far we haven’t had any problems with it.”
With violent crime at 0.42 percent, Jackson has seen only one stand your ground case in which two men were involved in a fight at a party in Cottondale in 2008. One man, Alan Rice, stabbed the other, Keith Bailey, 13 times, leaving him dead and going to the home of a former boss to wash himself instead of contacting the police. Rice claimed stand your ground, but was found guilty.
Guns are common weapons in Jackson, Branch said, but people are often responsible when using one. The station sees an influx of people every day coming in to ask for a concealed weapons permit form.
“It’s easy to have a weapon, but in order to get a concealed weapons permit, you have to go the extra mile to get that,” he said. “These people are doing it, and I appreciate that. They go that extra mile to be legal.”
Eric Friday, Florida Carry’s lead council, an organization dedicated to advancing the rights of Floridians to bear arms, said guns may be the cause for less cases of violence in counties with high permit counts.
“It’s a simple factor of guns deter crime,” Friday said. “Criminals go where the pickings are easy, and the pickings are not easy with a high rate of gun ownership.”
Friday said the issue of stand your ground is not a gun issue, but the issue of self-defense immunity is.
The self-defense immunity clause of stand your ground states that a person is immune to prosecution or a civil hearing if that person used justified force.
“The idea that a person who is forced into the situation by a violent criminal, the idea of making them back down and retreat and risk further or increased injuries to themselves by turning their back on an attacker makes absolutely no sense,” Friday said.
This is where guns enter the conversation.
Friday, 36, got his concealed weapons permit when he was 19 and living in Alabama. He worked for a company that transported large amounts of cash at night onto the Auburn University campus.
“I was not going to be a victim,” Friday said.
In counties with high gun ownership, there have been few stand your ground victims.
The Tampa Bay Times’ study on stand your ground cases concluded it was not people who were going out of their way to have their guns legally who were involved in stand your ground and benefitting from the law — it was criminals.
About 60 percent of those who claimed stand your ground had been arrested at least once before killing someone. One in three defendants had a previous violent crime accusation.
Assault, battery, robbery and drugs showed up on the records of those using a law that had been intended to protect law-abiding citizens.
Stand your ground is now used as a common term, said Larry McKinnon, spokesman for Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
“Stand your ground is becoming more automatically assumed as a term for a definition of justifiable homicide,” McKinnon said.
Hillsborough has the most stand your ground cases with 44 claims, followed by neighbors Pinellas County with 27 and Pasco County with 16.
When these numbers were calculated proportional to each county’s population, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco were still among those with the highest rate of stand your ground cases.
“The fact that whether you have a concealed weapons permit or not doesn’t come into play on whether or not the circumstances that occurred were justifiable homicide or not, either based on a self-defense rule or a stand your ground rule,” McKinnon said.
Friday cited a 1985 study, the only of its kind, that polled criminals as to what scared them most when committing a crime.
“The overwhelming answer was a citizen with a gun,” Friday said.