Poll asks Freeline Media Orlando readers to select the outstanding citizen of 2011.

ORLANDO – Heading into the new year, Greater Orlando seems to be at a crossroads.

Unemployment remains stuck at double digits. Will this be another year of job losses, or will the region’s once red-hot economic engine come out of its slumber and rev up again?

The local housing market remains in weak condition, with prices still falling and foreclosures still a large part of the inventory. Will 2011 produce a turnaround, with prices finally headed up, or will the foreclosure rate stay high and keep dragging prices down?

Is Central Florida poised for a rebound, or do we all need to be more patient in our hopes for a return to better days?

Economists, politicians and academics can all debate these issues, and make predictions about where we’re headed in the next 11 months. But the bottom line is this: one thing that could break all the predictions is leadership.

Putting our region in the hands of weak leaders who make bad decisions could make an already muddled economy even worse; while strong, visionary leadership could help spark growth and business investment at any even faster rate than anyone anticipated as the year began 24 days ago.

With that in mind, Freeline Media Orlando asked its readers to nominate people for outstanding citizen of the year, someone they felt made a clear impact on the region in 2010 and could do so again as we settle into 2011. Our readers responded, and selected 12 people from a variety of fields – politics, business, law, the arts – to be considered our outstanding citizen of the year.

The nominations, sent to Freeline Media Orlando in the past two weeks, are:

  1. Winter Park City Commissioner Beth Dilliha
  2. Jim Duffy, CEO of American Theatre Corp.
  3. Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party
  4. Former Congressman Alan Grayson
  5. Doug Guetzloe, founder of Ax the Tax and host of The Guetzloe Report
  6. Jim Hellsinger, artistic director of the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre
  7. Orlando City Commissioner Samuel Ings
  8. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs
  9. Attorney Dean Mosley
  10. Attorney Fred O’Neal
  11. Harris Rosen, president and COO of Rosen Hotels
  12. Pamela Vordeburg, an animal rights political activist.

The nominations came in from you, the readers; now, you get to vote. Take part in this poll and let your voice be heard. Who do see as the citizen most likely to make a critical impact this year, in ways that are either grand and sweeping, or low key but still crucial to help our region prosper.

The poll will be in place until Monday, Feb. 14, then the results will be announced and the winner will be profiled in a future article in Freeline Media Orlando.

Freelining with Mike Freeman: on convicted felons and guns.

Is jail a miserable enough place that convicted felons won't want to go back there once they've served their sentence?

It was a fairly simple question, and I suspect the person asking it had been anticipating a clear, painfully obvious answer.

“Should convicted felons be able to own guns?”

He said it in a way that suggested it was one of those “Well, duhhh” questions, particularly after the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, which heightened public awareness about the dangers of gun violence.

And I also felt like there was an obvious response, so I said it.

“Yes,” I nodded, “I not only think convicted felons and ex-offenders should be able to own guns, I think Congress should repeal the federal law that makes it a felony for them to do so.”

My friend stared at me in a kind of dazed, chin-to-the-floor way, like I had just said I wanted to set off an atomic bomb in my living room because it had been a dull night.

Then he simply walked away, shaking his head mournfully, as if to suggest that my response had been so bizarre and off the wall that I wasn’t worth the time and effort of a legitimate answer.

And I understood his reaction.  It’s the one that says, You basically want to put guns in the hands of criminals so they can shoot and kill us more easily.

Well, no, actually, that’s not my position at all. Far from it.

What I don’t believe, and never have, is that guns in the hands of criminals can be banished due to federally-mandated gun control.  Law abiding citizens who won’t rob me when I stop by the ATM at night now have to jump through multiple hoops to get their guns and register them, but criminals tend to bypass those regulations altogether.  So gun control is mainly an effective system for ensuring that people who don’t commit crimes to begin with bow to our political leaders for their own good.  It’s window dressing for politicians who want the general public to think they’re promoting law and order.

After the shooting in Tucson that killed six people and seriously injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Larry Pratt, national president of Gun Owners of America, wondered aloud what would have happened if someone in the crowd had been carrying a concealed weapon.  Could that person have taken down the shooter before anyone else besides Giffords got injured? I have no clue, and considering how chaotic that scene must have been, some could reasonably wonder if several people in the crowd with guns could have made the entire situation even worse.

Or, considering that the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, was tackled by an unarmed citizen, it’s possible that one truly sharp shooter in the crowd could have saved lives. We’ll never know.

But back to convicted felons. If they’re felons, don’t we want federal and state laws to ban them from owning guns because, well, aren’t they likely to be the very people who would want to use them — for all the wrong reasons?

I say – probably not.

For one thing, convicted felons have served their time in prison.  Upon completion of their sentence, they’re free and, presumably, have had enough of being locked in a cramped cell, yelled by at guards, eating awful food and having their freedom taken away.  I’m not about to assume anyone who has done their time is ready to jump back into a life of criminal activity, although admittedly some will.

Here in Florida, being a convicted felon means you lose some of your civil rights — and not just the right to own guns and ammunition.  You can’t serve in the military, vote, hold public office, serve on a jury, and get certain professional licenses.  Florida is one of three states that permanently removes these rights from people with felony convictions.

Why this is so, I can’t figure out.  If jail is all about rehabilitation, you’d think we’d want people to get out of prison with certain advantages that help them put their lives back together – rather than rely on an outdated “tough on crime” mentality that assumes if we brand felons as bad boys for life, that’s a tough deterrent to others who may be contemplating breaking the law.  The Scarlet Letter didn’t work for adultery and I doubt it will with general criminal activity, either.  More likely, I think, it just makes it harder for offenders to get back on their feet once they’re out of prison.

There’s a process for getting those rights restored, which involves submitting an application to the Office of Executive Clemency in Tallahassee.  Felons convicted of non-violent crimes can get their rights restored if they submit an application, have a job and have paid their court-ordered restitution — although those rights only cover being able to vote, hold office, serve on a jury and apply for a professional license.  It doesn’t include the right to own a gun, and felons still have to apply for that right on a case-by-case basis.

I’m not sure I understand why a felon convicted of a non-violent crime – say, drugs or forgery, for example – can’t own a gun. There’s no indication they would use it to commit a violent crime, and shouldn’t they be given a second chance to demonstrate they’ve changed their ways?

And how about felons who wereconvicted of violent crimes – aggravated assault or battery, for example? Shouldn’t they be prohibited from owning a gun?

Again, I say no.  I’d rather have a felon convicted of a violent crime be able to buy a gun legally – and then register it with law enforcement, so we can easily track who they are – then be tempted to get a gun illegally, under the cover of the law.

Not every convicted felon will keep committing crimes.  Some of them will get it – jail is a miserable place and they don’t want to go back.  Now it’s time for them to focus on their family, find a steady job, and rebuild their lives.  If they want a gun for self-protection, or to go hunting, or because they’re a collector, or because they think a shotgun looks nifty framed on their living room wall … they should have that right, just as the rest of us do.

Likewise for those convicted of violent crimes.  Advocates of gun control are likely to view this as pure insanity, but I stand by it: an ex-convict can find his home being broken into by other criminals just like the rest of us.  Why disarm that person entirely when law enforcement lacks the manpower to protect every home from danger?

Politics is based on the notion that the government can do lots of wonderful things, including protect us from every possible threat lurking in our neighborhoods. Along with Santa Claus, I gave up believing that one a long time ago.  Today I recognize that violence is shocking, random, and unpredictable, and we can’t expect to find a police officer on every corner.  Self-protection, as Larry Pratt might say, seems like a much wiser option.

The government should worry less about taking guns away from people — including convicted felons — than encouraging lots and lots of gun safety courses for anyone with a weapons permit, plus multiple training sessions at the shooting range so those who have concealed weapons know how to use them. I know the concept of a lot of expert marksmen armed with guns scares plenty of gun control advocates, but that’s only because they stereotype  gun owners as angry people prone to violence. Most of the gun owners I know are gentle and easygoing, and tell some awfully funny jokes at parties.

I don’t buy those stereotypes, and I also don’t stereotype every convicted felon — even those who committed violent crimes when they were young and stupid — as being prone to continued violence, either.

People change.

Too bad our politicians don’t.

 Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

Freelining with Mike Freeman: On being a bad (or is it good?) drinking companion

I always thought the notion of being a “mean” drunk was an urban legend.

Until, I suppose, a friend and co-worker told me he gets really mean when he drinks.  It was hard to believe, because he’s one of the nicest guys I know. Besides, I’ve been around mean people before, but usually alcohol has nothing to do with it.

When are a couple of drinks one too many? How many drinks does it take to cause one person to open up, another to pass out, and a third to become a mean drunk?

About the only time I’ve ever been exposed to angry drunks is when I worked at Walt Disney World years ago at one of the hotels, and came across my share of drunken guests.  But they seemed angry for a different reason: usually paying hundreds of dollars a night for their room and having nit-picky complaints about it: the washcloths looked dirty, they were promised a feather pillow and didn’t get one, their kid threw up on the bed 30 seconds ago and why didn’t the maid know this was about to happen and stop it. Sigh. In true Disney fashion, I would lie and say there was a nickel-a-drink happy hour special at Pleasure Island if they got over there within the next 15 minutes.  Then they became happy drunks.

Usually when I’m hanging out with who drink, their reaction to booze is different: they get giddy. Silly, even.  They lose their inhibitions and get a little crazy.  They roll out bad jokes and complain about their mother in law in ways they never would without alcohol in their system.  They whisper their secrets to you. They open up.

But mean? I’ve just never seen that. Maybe I just drink with the right (wrong?) people.

For the record, I should acknowledge that I’m not a “fun” drunk, either – but that’s not because I become “mean.”  I’m really not much of a drinker to begin with, and after just a couple of glasses of wine, I’m already starting to fade off into dreamland.  I don’t get grumpy or irritable, but I do get sleepy rather quickly.  I’m notorious at family gatherings around the holidays for fading before the evening news has come on.  I’ve never mastered the art of consuming large amounts of liquor and absorbing it like you were sipping lemonade.  So unless you want to carry me home, passed out over your shoulder, I wouldn’t recommend inviting me to go drinking with you.

But I don’t mind playing designated driver.  In fact, it’s fun.  I can go out with friends and have a non-alcoholic drink, and relax in a very alert fashion while I watch them down one drink after another after another.

The changes come slowly.  The guys ease into the “Yer mom!” slams.  My women friends giggle a lot.  They shift the conversation to subjects we’d never discuss over lunch at work.

It’s not always happiness, though, that bursts forth in these gatherings. Yes, sometimes the conversations get raunchy and explicit, and I find myself squirming and thinking, TMI, TMI. But if alcohol can open you up to be more frank and honest about issues, it’s not just their sex life that people have a strange compulsion to discuss.

When you’re a good listener like I am, and can nod your head sympathetically no matter what the topic, people open up to you in ways you never expected.  But it’s not always on pleasant subjects.  I’ve had friends tell me about their health care problems in excruciating detail, which makes the conversations about sex seem vanilla by comparison.

I’ve also had friends tell me about abusive parents, about the decaying relationship with their significant other, about how depressed they get, about their anxieties over aging.  After a while of listening to them, you start to understand one thing: they’re not looking for answers or solutions.  They just want to vent, to get it off their chest. The alcohol gave them the strength, maybe even the courage, to do that.

There are times when I think I could be a Prohibitionist.  I’m anti-drug, and not just the illegal stuff, but also all that over the counter junk meant to pick you up, bring you down, help you sleep, relax your mood, etc.  When I think about alcohol, I think about all the drunk drivers who have destroyed people’s lives. I think about the torment of being a child raised by two alcoholic parents.  I think about how alcohol has wrecked families – the mean, abusive drunk that I’ve never met coming into play here.

But instead, I take the libertarian view that we’re all better off making our own decisions and charting our own destinies rather than having the government do it for us.  So I stay anti-drug – meaning I choose not to use them because I think I’m healthier without them, while still finding an occasional drink to be well within reason.

I doubt I’ll ever become one of those people who opens up after a few drinks.  I’ll probably always remain the one who falls asleep by the time I finish my second glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

I have, on the other hand, seen plenty of instances where alcohol became an amazing therapist.  And for all the folks brought down by drink, I’m amazed that I’ve mostly been exposed to the ones who find it liberating …  as long as they’ve got a good listener by their side.  

Contact Michael Freeman about this column at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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