JEFFERSON CITY _ In 1987, opponents of a proposed concealed weapons law in Florida warned that the law would turn the Sunshine state into the "Gunfire" state.
Now, even some of the measure's opponents say allowing Floridians to carry concealed weapons has not had the devastating effect they predicted.
"It's not as bad as we had anticipated it would be," said Hallandale Police Chief Kenneth Wagner. Wagner heads the Florida police chief's association which opposed the bill eight years ago.
As the Missouri legislature contemplates allowing citizens to vote on whether or not they will be allowed to get permits to carry concealed guns, proponents point to Florida, where according to FBI statistics murders involving handguns went down 29 percent in the five years after the measure passed.
In 1986, the year before Florida passed its law, the state saw 1,371 murders, or 11.8 per 100,000 residents. In 1993, the last year for which statistics are available, the state had 1,224 homicides or 8.9 per 100,000 people. That's below the national rate of 9.5 per 100,000.
But criminologists urge caution in drawing conclusions from the data.
"It would be a methodological nightmare to do serious empirical research that determines the amount of cause and effect," said Fred Shenkman, a criminologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Shenkman also points out that concealed weapon supporters say law-abiding citizens carrying guns deter crime. But the rate of serious crimes in Florida has gone up slightly since the weapons law took effect.
Although that statistic could suggest criminals were not deterred by the prospect of a gun-toting victim, there is no way of knowing how much the rate would have increased without the law, Shenkman said.
The co-author of a study looking at the effects of concealed weapons laws nationwide, said that in other states, the laws have had little impact on crime.
David Kopel, the research director of the Independence Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Golden, Colo., co-authored a 90-page study on the issue and determined that neither the doomsday predictions of the opponents nor supporters' promises of reduced crime have come true in a statistically significant way.
Thirty-nine states currently have conceal and carry laws like the one working its way through Missouri's legislature.
Kopel said one reason the impact has been insignificant is that the number of people who actually apply for permits is quite small.
"About one to four percent of the population (of the states that allow it) get a permit," said Kopel. "Not that many people want to go through the hassle."
Applicants for permits in Missouri would pay $50 and be fingerprinted, photographed and subjected to a background check by the sheriff.
The small number of people that do apply, Kopel said, "are the cream of the crop of law-abiding citizens, for the most part. Most of the permit holders are not causing any problems."
Florida has issued 266,710 concealed weapons permits since the law took effect Oct. 1, 1987. Of those, about 182,800 were for new permits, and 83,900 were renewals. The state has revoked 470 licenses, according to the Florida Department of State. Most of the revocations, however, were not for the commission of serious crimes.
Another state that allows its citizens to carry concealed guns is Indiana. But that didn't keep the city of Gary, in the northwest corner of the state near Chicago, Ill. from being dubbed the "murder capital" of the United States in 1993. The industrial city is well on its way to setting another record this year, said Bill Sudbury, the police chief in neighboring Munster, and the head of the state's police chief's association.
"So it doesn't seem to have created a downward trend" in crime, said Sudbury. But Sudbury agrees that Indiana's rising crime rate cannot necessarily be attributed to the ease in carrying firearms, either.
Sudbury said he is not against people carrying guns, if that makes them feel safer. But, he said, Indiana's requirements for getting a permit are too lax. "There should be a standard as to who can get a permit," he said.
Indiana only requires that applicants not have felony convictions within the last five years and not be mentally instable, Sudbury said.
Missouri's proposed law would not allow permits to go to people who are under 21, mentally ill, convicted felons, or if a background check determines the person has threatened someone within five years of applying for the permit or is a known drug or alcohol abuser.
The Missouri law would also require applicants to demonstrate some knowledge of handgun safety.
That issue concerns both Chief Sudbury in Indiana and Chief Wagner in Florida more than the use of legal weapons for illegal activities. "We have a lot less homicides than we do accidental deaths from lawful weapons in homes," said Wagner.
As approved by the Senate, Missouri's measure would require statewide voter approval in April 1996 to take effect. The House has a version that does not include putting the question to a vote of the people, but the bill's sponsor has said the Senate version has a better chance of passage.