In Depth

Guns used in rising percentage of Florida murders

“Get the gun,’’ Yasmin Davis shouted to her 14-year-old son, Jack, who had spied a young man trying to steal the Wave runner behind their waterfront home in Miami Shores.

The shotgun blast hit Reynaldo Munoz in the back of the head, propelling him into the water, where police found his body floating by the dock.

Davis, an architect, called 911, and initially claimed that she’d killed the intruder because he had threatened them with a gun. But her story, police said, was inconsistent. It wasn’t Davis who pulled the trigger as she claimed, but her son. And Munoz was not armed.

Shootings like this one are common in Florida, where statistics show more citizens are arming themselves and using firearms to kill more than ever before.

While the number of murders overall in the state has stayed relatively flat, the percentage of those committed with a firearm has risen, reflecting a significant increase in gun sales and concealed-weapon permits.

“Everybody has a gun in this neighborhood,’’ said one resident of the wealthy enclave following the 2011 shooting. “It’s sad, but once you’ve been threatened you don’t take any chances.’’

In 2000, there were 499 gun murders in the state, 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.

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

Those statistics don’t even count gun deaths that are the result of self-defense or less clear-cut cases, such as the Miami Shores shooting, which is still being investigated and has not resulted in charges.

National debate

The rise in gun murders comes at a time when gun control is at the forefront of national debate. Surveys show a majority of Americans favor tougher firearms regulations. Supporters say stricter background checks, which were defeated in the Senate last week, could lessen the number of gun killings.

In Florida, shootings have received greater attention 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 that killing emboldened gun owners to carry firearms.

Experts Divided

There’s no clear answer as to why gun murders have increased, 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.

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 illness to a federal database used in gun background checks, according to a report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

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, something that President Barack Obama tried to remedy with his unsuccessful gun control bill.

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 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.”

Miami criminal defense attorney Jeffrey S. Weiner, a gun owner and member of the National Rifle Association, said guns have been unregulated in Florida for so long that it’s a daunting — if not impossible — task to now regulate them.

“Yes it’s true there are millions and millions of guns on the street. Honorable people buy them and register them,’’ he said. “The problem is there are millions more that are not registered and you can buy them any day or night of the week on the streets.’’

Death on a bus

Lourdes Guzman-DeJesus was on her way to school with her 7-year-old sister and seven other students in Homestead on Nov. 20 when 15-year-old Jordyn Alexander Howe pulled a .40-caliber pistol out of his backpack on the school bus.

The gun discharged, and a bullet pierced Lourdes’ neck. The 13-year-old, whose nickname was “Gina,” died at the hospital. Howe had grabbed the gun from his parents’ closet and had brought it to school more than once.

He now faces charges of manslaughter and carrying a concealed weapon. His parents, however, have not been held responsible, since authorities said they made a “reasonable’’ effort to keep the gun in a safe place.

Gun control advocates say this is another case that shows how Florida’s gun laws need to be changed so that firearms don’t get into the wrong hands, whether it’s a child or someone angry and unstable, such as the Sandy Hook killer.

Gun advocates, however, challenge the anecdotal evidence of individual cases and believe that an increase in guns doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase in gun-related crimes. Dave Wood, president of the West Palm Beach-based Second Amendment Coalition, said sales at gun shows and shops have “gone gangbusters” in recent years. But according to Wood, those guns don’t land in the hands of murderers.

“It’s unlikely that law-abiding citizens have contributed to this increase” in gun murders, Wood said. “The people who are buying guns after Obama are not the ones committing the murders.”

Ladd Everitt, communications director for the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, disagrees. He said it’s no coincidence that gun murders rose at a time when gun ownership increased in Florida. In addition, Everitt said high-profile “stand your ground” cases have given gun owners greater confidence to settle disputes with firearms.

“The point of the shoot-first law was to embolden people to carry guns out in public,” Everitt said. “This creates more chances for shootings, and Floridians probably feel much more emboldened to take those shots because they know there’s a law that might protect them.”

The overall rate

But according to John R. Lott, the author of several books on gun ownership, including The Bias Against Guns, it’s deceptive to focus on the increase in gun murders in Florida when the murder rate overall has gone down. Since 2000, the murder rate — or the number of homicides per 100,000 people — has decreased from 5.6 to 5.2. That’s the second lowest murder rate recorded since the state began keeping statistics in 1971.

“The main thing that concerns people is the murder rate overall,” Lott said from his home in Virginia. “People want to see it go down, and if it has.”

One possible cause for the increase in gun murders could be that the rise in gun ownership in Florida made them more available during outbreaks of domestic violence, said Sarah Trumble, policy counsel at Third Way, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates gun control. The presence of guns in a home during domestic violence increases the homicide chance for women by 500 percent, according to a 2003 study of domestic violence incidences in 11 cities.

Background checks conducted at gun shops prevent people with restraining orders against them from purchasing firearms, but such buyers can still make purchases at gun shows and from private sellers. “It’s one reason that background checks for all guns is important, and it shows the effectiveness of the background check,” Trumble said. Domestic violence is one reason “we need background checks for all gun purchases so desperately,” she said.

After Jack Davis shot and killed the 20-year-old who was attempting to steal his jet-ski, police did not find the gun that his mother alleged the thief was carrying.

Yasmin Davis, whose husband is a prominent criminal defense attorney, told different versions about what happened in the minutes before her son killed Munoz.

But a violent incident a few months earlier likely brought back memories for Davis, who was assaulted by three men in her driveway armed with semi-automatics. They grabbed her purse and fled.

Weiner, who represents Davis and her son, said that while gun laws should provide some restrictions, citizens should still not be penalized for defending themselves.

He maintains that Munoz walked well onto the Davis family property, to the rear of their home.

“She went outside and told him to leave. He didn’t answer her.”

As it turned out, Munoz was deaf and mute.

“She didn’t know he was deaf, she just thought he had what looked like a gun and he was right there,’’ Weiner said.

The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office is still weighing whether to file charges in the case.

“Looking back, would we say he was only going to steal the Wave runner? Who knows?” Weiner said.

Eric Barton did reporting reported for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit Julie K. Brown is a Miami Herald staff writer.