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PolitiFact Fl Sets Its Sights On Stand Your Ground Claim; Gun Sales

Mar 24, 2017

Even though violent crime has been steadily decreasing, can that be attributed to Florida's decade-old Stand Your Ground Law? WUSF's Steve Newborn poses that question - and another - if nearly half of all gun sales aren't registered - to Katie Sanders of PolitiFact Florida.

Various bills that would unleash restrictions on where guns can be visibly carried have been bouncing through the state capitol during this legislative season. One would make it easier for defendants to use the "Stand Your Ground Law." That's the ruling surrounding the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman debate. More recently, former Tampa Police officer Curtis Reeves invoked a Stand Your Ground defense after killing Chad Oulson, who allegedly threw popcorn at him in a Pasco County movie theater.

Now, one of the authors of the original bill 10 years ago, State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, has been pushing to beef up the law. Here's what he said recently on the Senate floor:

"So what has happened since 2005?" Baxley asked. "We’ve seen violent crime continuously go down. Is that not the public policy result that we would want?"

Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling on that:

Data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting statistics shows that from 2005 to 2015, the violent crime rate in Florida decreased by a cumulative 34.9 percent overall.

However, if you look at the changes from year to year, the violent crime rate did go up three times — in 2006, 2007 and 2014. (And remember, the rate had been dropping for several years anyway.)

Given that there is a certain amount of "noise" in yearly crime statistics, those spikes don’t really undercut the argument that violent crime has been dropping overall in Florida. However, the word "continuously" is too strong to describe the trend line.

"I do not think that is quite the correct word to use," said Bill Bales, a professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University. However, Baxley's argument is not far off as long as "the declines experienced were very minimal."

Other experts have offered a similar assessment in previous fact-checks of crime data. Alan Lizotte, a University at Albany criminologist, told PolitiFact last year that "a small increase between two time points is not an increase when the 20-year trend is downward.  If it went on for several years, it might indicate an increase."

Impact of ‘stand your ground’ not proven

The bigger problem is Baxley’s assertion that the "stand your ground" law led to a demonstrable reduction on violent crime. (He confirmed through an aide that that was his point.)

In reality, violent crime in the United States has decreased since the 1990s, except for an uptick in the past two years that has come nowhere near erasing the previous quarter century of declines.

In fact, there’s actually contrary evidence. The journal JAMA Internal Medicine published a study in November 2016 that found that firearm homicides increased after the 2005 passage of the law in Florida. That’s a narrower measurement than violent crimes overall, but the findings shed some light on the issue.

The study was done by David Humphreys of the University of Oxford, Antonio Gasparrini of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Douglas Wiebe of the University of Pennsylvania. They looked at trends for firearm homicides in Florida between 1999 and 2014. It found that after the "stand your ground" law took effect in October 2005, rates of homicide by firearm in the state significantly increased.

"These increases appear to have occurred despite a general decline in homicide in the United States since the early 1990s," the authors wrote. And states without a "stand your ground" law that were studied — New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Virginia — saw no such uptick.

"Our findings support the hypothesis that increases in the homicide and homicide by firearm rates in Florida are related to the ‘stand your ground’ law," the authors wrote.

We rate the statement Mostly False.

In our second round of gun-related rulings, Hannah Willard of the advocacy group Equality Florida made this claim during a recent press conference pushing for gun control:

She said, "Experts estimate that 40 percent of gun sales occur in no-questions-asked transactions that often take place at gun shows or on the internet."

Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling:

Willard pointed us to her source -- a briefing page about background checks published by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The page offers essentially identical language to what Willard said at the news conference:

To us, this was a familiar -- and imperfect -- talking point often raised by supporters of stricter gun laws. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe earned a Mostly False when he used it, as the statistic stems from survey data undertaken in 1994 and that included firearms given as gifts or inheritances, not just sold. When the authors of the study -- Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago and Philip Cook of Duke University -- adjusted the results to include only the guns sold, the number sold without background checks declined to between 14 percent and 22 percent.

In 2015, Cook told PolitiFact that he and his co-author didn’t know whether their findings were relevant any longer, and added that no current national study had been published.

Hanna Willard
Credit Equality Florida

We decided to check in again with the co-authors regarding Willard’s statement. Cook responded with some urgent news.

"We finally have an up-to-date survey that provides a good answer to the question of what percentage of gun transactions do not involve a background check," Cook said.

Researchers Matthew Miller, Lisa Hepburn, and Deborah Azrael published a study in the January 2017 edition of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine that was specifically undertaken to update the 1994 data.

The researchers asked 1,613 adult gun owners where and when they acquired their last firearm, including whether it was purchased, and whether they had either a background check or were asked to show a firearm license or permit.

The answer: 22 percent obtained their gun without a background check. That’s barely half of the 40 percent figure that has gained wide currency for more than two decades.

The 22 percent figure "represents a smaller proportion of gun owners obtaining firearms without background checks than in the past," the authors wrote, though they emphasized that despite the smaller figure, "millions of U.S. adults continue to acquire guns without background checks, especially in states that do not regulate private firearm sales."

We rate the statement False.