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Can gun laws solve Dade's murder wave?

July 31, 1985

The FBI says Dade County is once again the murder capital of the United States, and we've been swamped with statistics to support the fact.

The new numbers are ugly and they make headlines. Headlines, of course, inspire Civic Leaders to form committees and place blame and offer brilliant solutions.

One says it's just drug dealers killing each other off; another sees a reprise of Mariel violence. Still another says the answer is putting more cops on the street.

They've been saying all this for five years, and one gets the idea they might be missing the big picture. Murder is not just a passing public relations problem; it's here to stay.

"It's too easy for people in public positions to give an easy answer," says Dr. William Wilbanks, criminal justice professor at Florida International University. "In a year in which murders are down, everybody wants credit. When murder goes up, everybody says, 'Don't look at me'."

In the first place, the numbers aren't as bad as they seem. The body count actually has dropped dramatically since the nightmare years of 1980-1981.

Secondly, the numbers aren't always complete. Experts point out that federal per capita murder statistics rely on outdated Dade County population figures that exclude thousands of illegal aliens and winter residents. If the murder rate were recomputed accurately, we'd surely lose our No. i national ranking.

Thirdly, the numbers are not always compatible. The FBI reported that 425 people were murdered here in 1984.The Dade County medical examiner's office, where the corpses wound up, counted 462. This is how they were killed: gunshot wound (359), stabbing (40), beating (27), strangulation (8), child abuse (6), drowning (2), fire (7) and others (13).

Wilbanks suggests that this is not a crime wave, but a way of life. His book, Murder in Miami, meticulously charts the fluctuations in Dade County's homicide pattern from 1917 through 1983. It is a sobering document that avoids platitudes and simplistic solutions, which is probably why it's not easily understood by politicians.

"Everybody wants to make it some alien force affecting our community," he says. "But it's not any one factor. My argument is, it's more of a murder culture."

Chilling words, but no cause for panic. Yet.

There are traditional categories of urban murderdomestics, drug feuds, robberiesthat always will exist in a volatile, gun-happy community. And while a high murder rate is deplorable, it doesn't always mean that Joe Citizen stands a greater chance of being randomly gunned down on his way to the K mart.

Mike Gonzalez, dean of Miami homicide cops, says that 75 to 90 percent of all murder victims know their assailant. His favorite axiom: "If you're not a dope dealer, and you don't settle your domestic arguments with a gun, and you're halfway sensible about where you go at night, you haven't got a chance in the world of being killed."

I asked Gonzalez what can be done to stop the killing, and he talked about controlling handguns.

"With a gun, it's so easy, so efficient, so impersonal. There are more people killed in Miami than are killed in Great Britain, West Germany and Tokyo put together. And it's because of guns.

"Everybody buys a gun because they're gonna shoot the crooks, right? How many crooks do you think are killed this way?" the detective asked. "Children in back seats get killed with those guns. Ma and Pa get killed. The evidence is, they don't protect themselves with these guns, they kill each other."

And that's half our homicides right there.

Civic Leaders, of course, would much rather rail about drug assassins or crazed Mariels than suggest tough gun laws.

Gonzalez is no politician, but he's investigated about a thousand murders. What that makes him is an expert.

Indicted? Act indignant August 23, 1998 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | On the beach, reality doesn take a vacation August 9, 1985