07/15/2013 05:55 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

The Florida Moment


Congratulations, Florida. Once again, you're in the news for a legal decision that has people demonstrating across the nation. In the recent past, you've stolen the national spotlight for hanging chads and burning Qur'ans , and now your well-deserved reputation for vigilantism takes center stage. It's a reputation you've been working on for at least a century, with historical echoes in incidents ranging from the Ocoee massacre of 1920 to the Miami riots in 1980, all of which had racial overtones and arose out of questionable claims to self defense. While the George Zimmerman trial should be a call for national reflection over how Stand Your Ground laws work out in reality, the risk is that yet again, it will turn into just another story about what happens in Florida.

Along with sunshine, theme parks, and Burmese python killing contests in the Everglades, we like to promote our quirkiness -- witness the Twitter hashtag #Floridaman, who, among his recent exploits, "rode stolen 9-foot purple chicken statue hitched to pickup truck"). Most recently, #Floridaman also cooked and ate the family pet, and threw a garden gnome through a window and revealed himself as a possible serial arsonist. However, the joking headlines mask a darker truth. Crimes and acts of violence never occur within a vacuum but always tell us something about the society we live in. Florida is not an oddball peninsula in danger of drifting off from the rest of the country but a mirror for societal problems that all of us need to consider.

Take last year's headline about the "face eating cannibal" in Miami, another #Floridaman story that ended with one man dead and a homeless man horribly maimed. The news resulted in a momentary nationwide panic over bath salts, although the attacker, Rudy Eugene, was later found to have only marijuana in his system. In the media, the headline became just another bizarre Florida moment. Yet the larger issue, identifying and treating mental illness, something Florida does not do well, was ignored. Florida, far from being nationally distinct, reflects wider trends: from 2009-2011, mental health services nationwide were cut by $1.6 billion dollars from state budgets. Florida is the second to worst state for funding mental health services, with only 42 percent of people with severe and persistent mental illness receiving treatment. This has important ramifications for crime and incarceration, but the story became just another local tragedy.

The current national attention to the George Zimmerman trial risks being transformed into yet more exasperated hand-wringing at Florida's exceptionalism. But it should be channeled into a conversation over the role that race plays in the application of Stand Your Ground laws. Within five years of the nation's first Stand Your Ground law passing in 2005, justifiable homicides tripled. A study of 4,650 FBI homicide records shows that Stand Your Ground laws increase the likelihood that the shooter will be found not guilty, particularly in cases where a white person has killed a black person. "The data is clear," writes sociologist Lisa Wade, "compared to white-on-white crimes, stand your ground increases the likelihood of a not-guilty finding, but only when a person is accused of killing a black person."

At the White House Correspondents dinner in April, comedian Conan O'Brien joked, "Kim Jong-un doesn't understand that we aren't afraid of him. What that guy doesn't get is that we already have an unstable peninsula that will ultimately bring down America. It's called Florida." The jokes about Florida mask deeper issues. While bizarre headlines may seem to confirm in the national imagination that Florida is up to its usual dismissible weirdness, we are a bellwether for more than just elections. As Florida goes, so may go the nation. It would benefit all of us to pay closer attention to the larger issues behind the dramatic headlines.