Guns Under Cover

It was a slaying that almost defied belief — a teenager shot and killed at Jacksonville gas station over an argument about loud music.

Michael Dunn, a software developer in Satellite Beach, pulled into the Gate gas station after attending his son’s wedding, and parked next to a Dodge Durango.

Dunn told four teenagers in the Durango to turn the music down. An argument escalated into verbal threats and then, he said, he saw a shotgun in the SUV. He reached into the glove compartment of his Jetta, pulled out a pistol and fired eight to 10 shots into the SUV, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Police said the teenagers had no gun.

Dunn, a licensed concealed-weapons permit holder, is being held in the Duval County Jail on a charge of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted first-degree murder. “Stand your ground” has been brought up but not yet declared as a defense. An email to Dunn’s attorney Cory C. Strolla was not answered.

“The tragic killing of Jordan Davis, just like the death of Trayvon Martin earlier this year, is the direct result of Florida gun laws that allow virtually anyone to carry a concealed handgun in public,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, in a statement released on Nov. 29, just six days after Davis’ death.

The Violence Policy Center tracks U.S. shootings in which private concealed-gun permit holders use their legal handguns to kill in non-self-defense incidents. Between May 2007 and November 2012, permit-holders nationwide have killed 499 people. That number includes Davis and 22 others in Florida, including Trayvon Martin.

“Across America, lax concealed-carry laws arm and embolden too many shooters, who react to slight provocations with deadly force. The result is an untold number of innocent lives lost, families decimated and communities shaken,” the VPC’s Rand said.

It is extremely easy to purchase a gun in Florida. No permit, license or identification card is required to buy or possess firearms and ammunition here, unlike some other states.

If a gun owner wants to carry a concealed weapon, the licensing process is simple and quick — take a two-and-a-half-hour class and pay $42 for fingerprinting and a $75 permit fee. The permit, good for seven years, can be renewed for another seven years for $65. Renewal can be done at eight regional centers where photographs and notary services are free.

There are no estimates on the number of guns in Florida, but there are about 300 million guns nationwide.

With 1 million active concealed-carry permits and more than 800,000 who sought federal weapons checks in 2012, Florida is awash with handguns, pistols, rifles and assault weapons. More than 3 million Floridians asked for federal weapons checks in the last five years.

The gun culture is thriving in Northeast Florida as people crowd into gun shows, line up for concealed weapons classes, and buy semi-automatic weapons, shotguns and handguns in record numbers. Forty percent of respondents to a new poll of Duval County residents released by the University of North Florida said they or someone in their families owned guns, 54 percent did not own guns and 6 percent did not answer.

Florida tops the nation in active concealed-carry permits, reaching the 1 million mark on Dec. 12, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Georgia is second, with 600,000 active permits issued; Texas ranks third, with 524,000 permits, followed by Indiana, with 420,000 permits.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS, handles federal firearms background checks. According to the NICS, Kentucky had the largest number of federal firearms background checks in last two years, with 2.28 million in 2011 and 2.58 million in 2012. Texas came in second, with 1.15 million in 2011 and 1.43 million in 2012.

NCIS figures show Florida had 643,229 requests for background checks in 2011, compared with 834,319 in 2012, putting the Sunshine State at No. 6 both years.

From 1998 through the end of 2012, NICS conducted 160.4 million gun background checks nationwide, with the highest number peaking in 2012 at 19.5 million.

Larry Holt, a former Jacksonville police officer who teaches concealed-carry permit classes at Jax Tactical in Jacksonville Beach, said it is fear that is filling up his classes. He said 60 to 70 percent of those attending are women. Holt’s classes run two-and-a-half hours and cost $59.

“A lot of them feel vulnerable in today’s society,” Holt said.

“People are worried and concerned,” he added. “There are a lot of murders and crime, and a lot of people are scared to death. The crime rate and murder rate are crazy.”

In 2011, the latest year for which information is available from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Duval County racked up 5,585 violent crimes, which included murder, forcible sex offenses, robbery and aggravated assault. The crime rate was down slightly for 2010. In 2010, Duval County had a violent crime rate of 648.2 crimes per 100,000 citizens, compared with 646 in 2011.

Holt tells his students they need to be able to protect themselves until a police officer can get on the scene.

“I’m in favor of peoples’ right to own a firearm, but with that right comes responsibility” to use the weapon properly and make sure it doesn’t fall into the hands of an unauthorized user.

According to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s Office, which issues concealed-carry permits, Duval County has 45,806 concealed-carry permit holders, making it sixth among Florida counties. In Northeast Florida, Clay is No. 23, with 12,252 permits, followed by 9,308 in St. Johns County and 4,979 in Nassau County.

The top five Florida counties with the highest number of concealed-carry permits are Miami-Dade at 88,784; Broward with 77,847; Palm Beach reporting 62,950; Hillsborough has 50,264 and Orange with 46,229. Duval County had a higher per capita concealed-carry permit rate than the five largest cities in the state.

Another 118,851 permits were issued out of state. Florida’s concealed-carry permits are good in 35 other states. Putnam County’s office reported that a breakdown of out-of-state permits was not available.

Marion Hammer, executive director of the NRA’s state lobbying organization, United Sportsmen of Florida, has said the NRA will seek to pass a bill legalizing the open carrying of firearms in Florida during the 2013 legislative session. Hammer wants a law that allows concealed permit owners to carry their guns openly.

Holders of concealed weapons permits are not allowed to bring them into schools, colleges or educational administration buildings; police, sheriff or highway patrol stations; courthouses, detention facilities or jails; any meeting of the governing body of a county, public schools or municipality; any meeting of the Legislature and its committees; past the security gate of an airport; and into any establishment which dispenses alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises.

There is no way to know if Jacksonville’s increase in its gun ownership rate had anything to do with a spike in its homicide rate, up to 108 in 2012, compared with 86 in 2011. In Jacksonville, violent crime rates have held steady, while minor crime incidents have decreased.

Jacksonville University sociology instructor Shelley Grant, who worked 20 years in the mental health field through the State Attorney’s Office and United Way, said more widespread and available mental health care might solve some of the problem.

“The gun culture comes out of peoples’ need to be safe and peoples’ fear. We are scared,” Grant said.

“We need to look at the underlying causes — things like education, poverty and mental health,” she said, adding that mentoring of youngsters could reduce the amount of violence.

Even Jacksonville attorney John Phillips, who represents the Jordan Davis family, said he first got a carry permit after being burglarized last fall.

“It was motivated by fear and the desire to protect my family. Seeing how easy the process was and how much fear and hatred there was in the concealed weapons class, as well as coming to grips with my fear, I realized that carrying a gun, except in rare instances, is a liability better reserved for those trained to do so,” Phillips said. “Far too many people carry out of fear or simply because they can.”

Jonathan Greene, 30, a disabled war vet and Jacksonville blogger (, has held a concealed weapons permit for about two years. “I think it is a cultural thing for me. All my family has them [guns].”

“I was in the military so I have a level of proficiency,” Greene said.

“What concerns me is [that] the people who are intent on committing crime are able to access firearms,” Greene said. “At the end of the day, it’s a crazy world,” he added, saying he hopes to protect his wife and two daughters.

Shawn Morris, who works security at a local nightspot and works for a trucking company, has a concealed weapons permit.

“I carry one daily for self-protection. I would not say I’m scared. I would say I’m concerned,” Morris said. “In today’s environment, with everything going on in today’s world, you have to be able to protect yourself and others.”

Morris, who lives in Middleburg, has three young daughters. “I want to protect them every second of every day.”

Morris is opposed to banning assault rifles, even though he doesn’t own one, because “that would be a stepping stone to banning everything else.”

Kerri Mathews, a mother of three, said she first got her concealed-carry permit about four years ago, taking classes with her sister and a girlfriend.

“I had never fired a firearm before, but I knew if I was going to have one in my home, I needed to have training,” she said.

She keeps her gun locked in a container and stores the ammunition in a separate place to ensure her youngsters stay safe.

She and her family have used the gun for target practice, and she and other family members have used guns to kill cottonmouth snakes on their property.

Though she sometimes works as a substitute teacher, she is unsure about the best way to protect schoolchildren from a gunman on campus.

“I don’t know that arming people in the school will help,” Mathews said. “You can ban weapons, but then the bad guys will have all the weapons.”

Most people who carry guns seldom have to use them. Sometimes, just the sight of a gun will prevent a crime, said James Mathews, the uncle of Kerri’s husband.

Mathews and his wife were headed toward his parked truck when a man accosted them. “He was there for no good,” Mathews said. The would-be robber did not immediately notice that Mathews’ wife had a .38-caliber handgun in a gun purse pointed at him. When the alleged bad guy noticed it, he said, “I think I made a mistake,” and took off running.

Mathews, who is retired, said he carries a gun “most of the time.”

Walker Blanton, a JU history professor, is a lifelong hunter and gun supporter.

“I think responsible ownership is a good thing. I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” Blanton said.

Tougher gun laws would not have prevented the horrific massacres around the country, including the slayings of the 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he said.

“The real problem is the individuals who choose to act out this way,” he said, adding that those intent on doing harm don’t care about the gun laws. “They will find a way.”

Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown and Sheriff John Rutherford have taken low-key approaches to the gun situation and the rising murder rate.

“The key is really focusing on the cause of crime. That’s why I focus on prevention and intervention, really making sure we get to young people, making sure we have better neighborhoods,” Brown told The Florida Times-Union in January.

Brown and Rutherford are pushing a renewed emphasis on Operation Safe Streets, a program started in 2006, to get illegal guns and felons off the street and target high-crime areas.

The slaying of 8-year-old DreShawna Davis, killed in a drive-by shooting while inside her grandmother’s house in 2006, awakened city leaders and launched the Jacksonville Journey to fight the crime rate.

“That was the tipping point for the mayor, City Council and the sheriff to get together,” said Micheal Edwards, director of patrol and enforcement who is in charge of Operation Safe Streets.

The homicide rate remained high after DreShawna’s senseless death. There were 137 deaths in 2006, 152 in 2007, 144 in 2008 and 113 in 2009. The numbers dipped in 2010 and 2011, with the rate declining to 99 and 86, before jumping up to 108 in 2012.

Rutherford told Folio Weekly he is in favor of concealed-carry permits, opposed to open carry of guns and would like to see a registration system imposed where both the buyer and the seller of a weapon would have to have a permit.

“It would give us an investigative tool. We could put officers on the streets buying and selling guns,” he said.

The sheriff would like to see some changes made in Florida’s “stand your ground” law because he believes the defendant “has a second bite of the apple” by trying his defense before a judge before the case actually goes to trial before a jury.

He is opposed to open carry because “it makes the citizens the target, and I want the bad guys to be the target.”

A key element of the sheriff’s Operation Safe Streets program is known as “One Gun, One Arrest and One Grand.” The program pays a $1,000 bounty to anyone providing information on illegal guns that results in an arrest. The sheriff has turned to the business community to try to raise more money to fund the rewards and publicize the program.

Rutherford is fond of saying, “Most of these guys will turn in their mamas for $1,000.”

Since the program began in 2006, police have paid out $201,000 and solved 201 cases. They have made 305 arrests and confiscated 1,686 weapons.

Both Edwards and the sheriff said cuts to JSO funding, the elimination of 74 police positions and slashing the entire community service officer program cut the number of officers on the streets. Putting extra officers in hot spots was one of the key elements of Operation Safe Streets.

But Rutherford has no problem with the number of Duval County residents that own guns legally.

“I’m glad good people are carrying guns. I am a big supporter of the Second Amendment,” the sheriff said.