Pulse nightclub shootings drive up Florida's murder rate

The attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando helped drive up Florida's murder rate in 2016 to its highest level since 2008, according to crime statistics released Wednesday by the state's top law enforcement agency.

But even if the 49 people fatally shot at the Pulse nightclub weren't included in the data, the number of slaying - and slayings with firearms - would have increased in 2016.

Last year, there were 1,108 homicides in Florida, up 68 from the year before. That includes 847 homicides committed with a gun, up 80 from 2015, according to statistics released by the Florida Law Enforcement Agency.

Overall, it was the most people killed in the state since 2008, when the agency reported 1,168 homicides.

Still, Gov. Rick Scott touted Florida's crime figures because overall the number of crimes dropped by 2.8 percent. In a press release with statements from Scott and six other state and law enforcement officials, the Pulse shootings were only briefly mentioned. Scott said the shootings, like hurricanes, were a challenge for law enforcement.

"Florida's law enforcement was tested like never before. From the horrific terror attack at Pulse Nightclub to Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew, Florida's men and women in uniform have answered the call," Scott said in the statement.

Overall, the state's crime rate dropped 4.4 percent when the growth in population was factored in. There 3,181 crimes per 100,000 Florida residents last year, down from 3,326.5 in 2015 and the lowest since the state began keeping statistics in 1971. Although rapes increased from 7,534 to 7,583, a sharp drop in robberies and slight decrease in aggravated assaults pushed the overall violent crime down 3.5 percent. Burglaries and larcenies were also down in Florida, but 43,044 motor vehicles were stolen, up 6.1 from the year before.

Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley, one of Legislature's staunchest gun rights advocates, said he wants to take a closer look at the numbers but saw it as a positive sign that violent crimes overall were down.

"I would definitely err on the side of us being able to defend ourselves if we're in a more dangerous time," Baxley said. "No one should be beaten or murdered or raped simply because they were afraid to act in defense of themselves and others from violence."

But Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith criticized Republicans for having an attitude of solving violent crime by advocating for more gun rights and allowing them in more places. He said better solutions would be banning assault rifles, having universal background checks and other measures.

Republicans have a dominant majority in the House and Senate and Democratic efforts to limit access to guns have gone nowhere.

"There is a more common-sense approach but the Legislature doesn't want to hear any solution to the gun violence epidemic," said Smith, whose district is 4 miles (6 kilometers) from Pulse. "Our side of the argument has always been that we have to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them."