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Fla. Gun Law to Expand Leeway for Self-Defense

Critics argue that the measure is so broad it will encourage fights between neighbors, parents at soccer games or drinking buddies to escalate into gunfights.

"It's almost like a duel clause," said state Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat and former federal prosecutor whose wife is a state prosecutor. "People ought to have to walk away if they can."

Gelber believes that Florida's major prosecutor groups, populated by state attorneys who must run for reelection, stayed out of the fight and many lawmakers supported the bill because they fear the NRA.

Law enforcement did not try to block the measure, siding with the NRA rather than opposing the group, as many sheriffs and police officials had done during the debate two decades earlier over right-to-carry.

Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, a leading candidate for the Republican governor's nomination in 2006, was among those who wrote letters of support. With that kind of high-level backing, Rep. Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala who sponsored the House measure, could ridicule critics as "hysterical."

"Disorder and chaos are always held in check by the law-abiding citizen," Baxley said.

As in the mid-1980s fights over the right-to-carry law, the state's big newspapers have almost unanimously lined up against Baxley's measure, although their outrage did little to stop its easy glide. South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist Howard Goodman said the state was "getting in touch with its inner Dirty Harry." Martin Dyckman of the St. Petersburg Times told tourists, indisputably a bedrock of the state's economy, to stay away: "Lebanon might be safer."

Hammer, a 4-foot-11 dynamo with a national reputation for her persuasive powers, dismissed the papers as "liberal, anti-gunners" and "Chicken Littles." The current law unfairly forces Floridians to make split-second decisions about a criminal's intent, she said, and NRA lobbyists like to note that was deemed impossible generations ago by legendary Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. "Detached reflection," Holmes said in one of his most oft-quoted pronouncements, "cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife."

Hammer stresses that violent-crime rates in Florida have dropped since the right-to-carry law was signed. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports that violent crimes dropped from 1,136 per 100,00 residents in 1989 -- two years after the law went into effect -- to 727.7 per 100,000 in 2003.

Her opponents counter that Florida's drop is not tied to the gun law and note that national violent-crime rates have been trending down. More important, Gelber and others say, is that Florida still ranked second in the nation, behind only South Carolina, in violent crime in 2003, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

Brady's best hope, as a national fight appears inevitable, is that there will be a backlash -- much like the bounce that gun control got in Florida in the 1980s when the loss on the right-to-carry law was followed by victories on waiting periods and background checks.

"This," Brady says of the new Florida measure, "will be the thing that will awaken the sleeping great number of Middle Americans who will think this is so absurd."

But, for now, it is the thoughts of another group that really matter, the ones with guns. In this state of 17 million people, permits to carry guns have been issued more than 1 million times in the past 18 years.

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