NAPLES, FL - In the so-called Gunshine State, home to the most gun permits in the country, firearm violence has fallen to the lowest point on record.
As state and national legislators consider gun control laws in the wake of last month's Connecticut school shooting, Florida finds itself in a gun violence depression. The firearm-involved violent crime rate has dropped 33 percent between 2007 and 2011, while the number of issued concealed weapons permits rose nearly 90 percent during that time, state records show.
"We're happy to have facts and statistics put into these debates, because every time they do, we win," said Sean Caranna, executive director of Florida Carry Inc., a pro-gun-rights advocacy group.
But other state and national data suggests a more nuanced picture of gun violence.
Florida statistics show murderers are increasingly using firearms. Between 2000 and 2005, Florida's firearm-involved murder rate never topped 3.5 per 100,000 residents. Every year since, it has exceeded that number. And in 2011, for the first time on record, guns were used in more than 70 percent of homicides.
Mirroring the 33 percent decline in gun violence since 2007, the violent crime rate also dropped 26 percent during that time, which could suggest other factors at play in causing fewer criminal acts.
"It's difficult to attach gun control to the reduction of crime, and vice versa," said Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "We don't know what works. We can't prove that gun control works because we don't have gun control laws."
Often an emotionally charged debate, more so in the wake of the Connecticut shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead, the issue of gun control will certainly become a political football this year. President Barack Obama and some Democrats have pledged action on gun control legislation, while some Republicans have floated the idea of allowing educators to carry weapons.
Less certain is whether gun regulations actually curb crime, and whether Florida's decline in firearm violence says anything about the greater debate over gun laws.
Regarded as a somewhat lax state for gun control -- the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranks it as having the 25th most-strict laws in the nation -- Florida boasts the most concealed weapons licenses in the nation, according to a July 2012 federal report. Florida's firearm-involved murder rate ranked 13th highest in the nation.
Gary Kleck, a Florida State criminology professor who has studied the link between guns and crime, cautions against tying recent declines in firearm violence to more gun permits.
Kleck, who has long argued his research shows little evidence that more gun laws equal less crime, notes gun violence has fallen nationally for nearly 20 years, not just in Florida. He also said concealed weapon permit data is an unreliable way to measure gun ownership in a state.
"The real problem there in drawing conclusions is you're just guessing why that decline or change in gun violence has occurred," Kleck said.
Kleck argues against sweeping restrictions on gun laws but offers a few legislative changes his research has proven effective in curbing gun crime -- background checks for private transfers of firearms, better cross-referencing of mental health records during background checks and local law enforcement better enforcing carry laws. Politically, Kleck calls himself "as liberal as they get."