By Sarah Langbein and Jim Leusner The Orlando Sentinel
ORLANDO, Fla. — Violent crimes committed with firearms in Florida exploded last year while the state's overall crime rate dipped slightly, according to preliminary statistics posted Monday to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Web site.
Murders statewide totaled 1,129, a 28 percent increase from a year earlier. The number of slayings with a firearm soared 42 percent. Robberies climbed 13.4 percent and those with a gun rose 20 percent, the data show.
"This is not good, to put it mildly," said University of Central Florida sociologist Jay Corzine, who has been studying the region's rising violence. "That's just a huge increase, comparatively."
This comes one year after then-Gov. Jeb Bush attributed Florida's declining crime rate to gun ownership.
"Law-abiding citizens that have guns for protection actually probably are part of the reason why we have a lower crime rate," he said at a news conference last July.
Arthur C. Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, blames the skyrocketing statistics on the accessibility of guns -- both legally and illegally.
"Guns are available to anybody," Hayhoe said. "It's a desperate situation. We're drowning in illegal guns."
Law-enforcement officials in Orange County attribute much of last year's violence to street criminals and drug dealers with guns.
"Several gun stores have been robbed here and in the county, and they're being stolen from people's cars and homes," Orlando police Sgt. Barbara Jones said.
The FDLE statistics were removed from the agency's Web site Monday evening after an Orlando Sentinel reporter inquired about them. Spokeswoman Kristen Perezluha said a "draft copy" was accidentally posted and that the figures hadn't been finalized.
"There could be changes in the next couple of days," she said, adding that the finalized statistics would likely be released this week.
Other highlights in the crime report include:
In Central Florida, Volusia County and its cities had the biggest increase in crimes with 9.5 percent. Brevard County was up 7.7 percent; Orange County, 6.5 percent; Lake County, up 3.7 percent; and Osceola County, up 1.2 percent. Seminole County saw the biggest decrease with 1.8 percent, while Polk County was down 1.7 percent.
Statewide, forcible sex offenses, including rape, sodomy and fondling, decreased by a little more than 5 percent. Domestic-violence crimes declined by 4.3 percent.
The issue of gun violence, however, provided the most sobering data.
Cracking down on drugs
During the past 18 months, the Orange County Sheriff's Office and Orlando police have launched numerous street-crime initiatives and roundups to crack down on drug dealing and the violence it causes. Two federally funded task forces focused on reducing gun violence also are in the works. Sheriff's spokesman Capt. Mark Strobridge blamed much of the problem on young offenders using handguns in robberies or disputes over drugs or money.
"Criminals out there have an attitude that there is no tomorrow the way they commit crimes," Strobridge said. "We have had several offenders tell us they're going to be dead or in jail by the time they're 22 years old, so what do they have to lose?"
In Orange County and its cities — with a population of about 1.1 million people — the 6.5 percent increase included the total number of crimes involving murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor-vehicle thefts. Murder led the way with a 64 percent jump — from 74 in 2005 to 121 in 2006. Forty-nine of those occurred in Orlando, 64 in unincorporated Orange County, marking the deadliest year in both jurisdictions.
Orlando Vs. Orange
However, the crime rate, calculated by crimes per 100,000 residents, was nearly twice as high in the city of Orlando than Orange County.
Strobridge stressed that while the population figures do not factor in the 50 million tourists who visit the region annually, they do include crimes against them, making the crime rate higher.
Many of the murders in Orlando appear to be senseless shootings, disputes escalated over seemingly minor arguments, Jones said.
"It could be over a girl, over drugs, over a cell phone or you looked at me a different way and I didn't like it," Jones said. "And unfortunately, when they're firing a gun, people are dying."