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The New Cold War - Florida Style

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In the 1983 movie War Games, a young Matthew Broderick tries to hack into computer game development sites and accidently uses his dial-up modem to enter the Department of Defense mainframe. There he gets the computer charged with activating Intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, to start playing a simulation game of "global thermonuclear war."

As the computer gets ready to start firing the missiles across the globe, he pulls up the game of Tic-Tac-Toe from its rudimentary programming (where the best outcome two experienced players can get is a draw). The computer applies the lesson from Tic-Tac-Toe to the current simulation and suddenly stops. It proclaims, "Interesting game. The only way to win is not to play at all."

This is an accurate crystallization of the realizations in the late 1980s that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. For three decades, the arms buildup and the paranoia and fear that drove the Cold War had been portrayed in several television shows like The Twilight Zone, to movies that included The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing.

But now it seems that the attitudes, fear and paranoia of the Cold War are back -- in Florida. This time, however, the weapon in question is not the atom bomb but the more personal conflict over handguns.

In this session of the Florida Legislature, state Rep. Dennis Baxley's "Stand Your Ground" law was to be reevaluated in light of several high-profile cases in our state. That was accompanied by several laws regarding firearms, including the School Safety bill, also known as the Gun-Toting Teachers bill, and a concealed weapons bill, which allowed people being evacuated during an emergency situation to carry a concealed weapon.

In each case, despite the attempts of various legislators to buffer the potential damage of these bills, paranoia won.

The concern over disoriented and frightened gun-toting evacuees pulling the trigger led state Sen. Dwight Bullard (D-Cutler Bay) to file an amendment to rename the bill the "Zombie Apocalypse" bill. Here is his statement to me after the bill passed and Bullard's amendment failed (with far too few smiles over his "unfriendly amendment"):

I've felt for some time now that our Florida State Legislature has been consumed by the gun culture, going back to my time in the House. Our state has never been at risk of being overly regulatory of guns, but laws post-SYG [Stand Your Ground] have been nothing short of ridiculous. [Bills were filed] prohibiting doctors from asking patients if they own a gun, immunity for "warning shots" and now the push to do away with a police officer's ability to charge people with a crime for carrying a firearm in a time of crisis.

I would like pro-gun advocates to take a hard look at the culture that they've created. George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn felt empowered to act out these Dirty Harry scenarios because of an appetite among some Florida gun owners that they can get away with that kind of behavior. Rather than make those who feel threatened feel better, we instead pass bills that instill more fear. My "zombie" amendment is befitting because the change in law is ridiculous.

The fear and paranoia is contagious.

In my little town of Wesley Chapel, where a man was shot at point-blank range for texting on his phone to his day-care provider, people were visibly shaken and concerned about standing up against any bad behavior. My daughter and her friends were doused with ketchup at a local Applebee's after they asked some people at a nearby outside table to refrain from smoking. When I asked both the kids involved and the restaurant staff why they did not detain the attackers and file a complaint, they said that they were concerned that the ketchup throwers would escalate to gunfire if they stood up to them.

Members of the Sherriff's department in Pasco County have told me that they would be totally out-gunned if frightened and untrained evacuees began carrying loaded firearms.

In the "School Safety" bill, designated teachers and staff (with only a fraction of the training required by the School Resource officers) would be carrying loaded handguns during the entire school day. State Rep. Mark Pafford of Fort Lauderdale had offered amendments to let the designated teachers keep their weapon in a locked box, or just to inform the parents which teachers were allowed to carry weapons. His amendments failed, mostly on party lines.

Is the solution to schools firearm safety and crisis situations more guns? Maybe the only way to truly win this game is "not to play at all," or at least let our trained police take care of us and keep the peace, as it is their mission.

It is time to put this Cold War mentality game back in the box it came in -- and bury it.

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UPDATE: Here is the tally of this session's guns bill's final outcome. It looks like calmer heads prevailed, but the attitudes that brought them to the table and made them a subject of debate down to the last days of session still exist, and these ideas will not go away until we confront them completely.

HB 89: THE WARNING SHOT BILL: Provides "stand your ground" immunity to people who fire a warning shot or threaten force; allows for expunging of court records for those who have charges dropped in "stand your ground" cases. CAVEAT - the definition of a warning shot must be one pointed at the ground. PASSED Note: Pray for a) no ricochet off hard ground or concrete and b) you don't live in the floor below the conflict.

HB 7029: THE POP TART BILL: Prevents children who play with simulated weapons in school from facing suspension or expulsion. PASSED

HB 209/SB 296: THE OPEN CARRY BILL- aka "The Zombie Apocalypse Bill" : Allows people without concealed weapons permits to carry guns in declared state of emergency. FAILED

HB 753/SB 968: The SCHOOL SAFETY BILL - aka "The Gun-Toting Teachers bill" : Enables superintendents or principals to designate school employees who can carry concealed weapons on school campuses. FAILED

HB 523: GUN PERMITS : Allows county tax collectors to accept gun permit applications. PASSED I have a lot of faith in our county Tax Collectors (especially Pasco) to implement this right.

HB 33/SB130: STAND YOUR GROUND : Requires local law enforcement agencies to issue guidelines for neighborhood crime watch programs; revises state standards regarding use of deadly force. FAILED(i.e. a flawed law remains flawed, for now. Vigilantes and would-be Barney Fifes have a reprieve.)

Gary Stein, MPH, a native Detroiter, worked for the Centers for Disease Control, landed in the Tampa Bay area to work for the State Tobacco program and is now a health advocate and activist and blogger for the Huffington Post. Column courtesy of Context Florida.