Michael Moline, Florida Phoenix
Legislative Republicans have taken the first step toward allowing any adult Floridian without a criminal record to carry concealed weapons free of any need to take gun-safety classes or register with the state.
They wouldn’t be allowed to openly pack handguns, as in the Wild West. Still, Democrats warned that bills introduced Monday in the state House and Senate could widely expand the presence of deadly weapons in Florida.
“Let’s be clear, Floridians will die if this legislation becomes law,” Maxwell Frost, the Gen-Z former gun-safety organizer turned congressman, said in a written statement.
Still, to House Speaker Paul Renner and a phalanx of county sheriffs who attended a news conference with him in the state Capitol, the overriding question was citizens’ rights to protect themselves under the Second Amendment. They’re calling it “constitutional carry.” But critics use the term permitless carry.
“The Constitution did not give us those rights; our creator gave us those rights. But it does put it down on paper in the Second Amendment. And the courts have interpreted that to mean an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense,” Renner said.
“I think it’s important in the age of political division to know that what we’re about here today is a universal right that applies to each man and woman regardless of race, gender, creed, or background,” he continued.
The bill would eliminate the need for a “government permission slip,” Renner said.
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo did not attend the event but endorsed the legislation in a written statement. “I stand with these brave warriors, with our law enforcement leaders, and with law-abiding Floridians across this state who should not have to ask the government for permission to protect themselves,” she said.
No machine guns
If the bills become law, gun-safety classes will be available but not required of people who want to carry handguns. Concealed-weapons permits would still be available to accommodate gun owners who want to take advantage of reciprocal concealed-weapons protocols with other states.
Other than handguns, the bills would allow electric weapons or devices, tear gas guns, knives, and billies but not a machine gun.
The right would apply to U.S. citizens and resident aliens aged 21 and above unless a servicemember or honorably discharged veteran. People 18 and older could carry a handgun in a private motor vehicle as long as it is locked up or not readily handy.
People carrying guns would have to carry I.D. and show it to any police officer who asks to see it. Existing law would continue to bar weapons from sensitive areas, including bars and restaurants, schools and college campuses, police stations, legislative meetings and government offices, courthouses, and detention facilities.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has already promised to sign such a measure into law but whether there’s much public appetite for that is hardly certain. In a poll last year by Giffords Florida, a state affiliate of the gun violence prevention group founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords – 68% of Miami-Dade County voters opposed permitless carry, including 65% of registered Republicans and 60% of voters who said they voted for DeSantis for governor in November.
Supporters described a scary society in which people can’t rely on the cops to respond to danger in time.
Reconciling the Bill of Rights with “domestic tranquility” can require a “balancing act,” said Al Nienhuis, sheriff of Hernando County and president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, which has formally endorsed the push.
“But I think we can use the premise that, just like people that are accused of crime are innocent until proven guilty, I think we can assume that our citizens are going to do the right thing when it comes to carrying and bearing arms,” he said.
“It’s about time,” Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey said.
“Government’s one and only responsibility is to protect its citizens. This gives them the absolute ability to protect themselves,” he added.
The House sponsor is state Rep. Chuck Brannan, a Republican whose district includes Baker, Bradford, Columbia, Union, and part of Alachua counties. People “certainly shouldn’t have to pay for a piece of paper from the government to legally carry their firearms,” he said.
Senate sponsor Jay Collins of Hillsborough County, a retired Green Beret, spoke of his role as a “husband and father.”
“I unequivocally understand that is our responsibility to protect our families, this great state, and our blessed nation.”
U.S. Navy and law enforcement veteran Donna Mitchell described herself as a rape survivor who later needed nine months to secure a concealed-weapons permit from the state — a delay she called “inexcusable.” She described permitless carry as a means for women to protect themselves.
Democrats including Frost insisted permitless carry would be too dangerous.
“When your state is home to tragedies like the Parkland and Pulse shootings, you would think our leaders would join their communities in rallying behind common-sense gun reform that takes guns off our streets, not puts more on them,” Frost said in his statement.
“But instead, Florida Republican leaders have decided the NRA is more important than Floridians. It’s despicable.
“Floridians are done seeing their elected leaders in the pocket of the gun lobby. They’re done seeing their loved ones murdered in the streets because the people they elected to represent them don’t care.
“I refuse to be that person. This is a reckless, dangerous piece of legislation, and I join survivors and Floridians in calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to put an end to it now,” Frost said.
“Permitless carry is dangerous for Floridians. Responsible gun ownership means knowing how to operate and store your firearm for your own safety and for the safety of those around you,” said Democratic House caucus leader Fentrice Driskell of Hillsborough County.
“Floridians deserve the freedom to be healthy, prosperous, and safe, and as the current data available to us shows, this will not make Floridians safer,” she said.
“Permitless carry doesn’t belong in a civilized society, but it’s a priority of Florida’s ‘golden boy’ governor and presumptive presidential candidate, and this Legislature will never stand in his way — regardless of the public safety implications in doing so,” Broward County House Democrat Dan Daley added.
DeSantis has promised a “law and order” regular legislative session program beginning in March, including the death penalty for child rapists and a prohibition on no-cash bail. This following the murder charges against Memphis, Tenn., police officers in the beating death of an unarmed Black man, Tyre Nichols.
About half the states allow some form of permitless carry rights, according to a survey by the National Rifle Association, which issued a written statement welcoming the legislation.
Not far enough
“Florida has long been at the forefront of supporting their citizens’ right to keep and bear arms,” state director Art Thomm said. “We thank Gov. DeSantis for his steadfast leadership on this issue, Speaker Renner and the Florida Sheriffs Association for their backing, and the millions of law-abiding Florida gun owners for their continued support.”
The law doesn’t go far enough for members of Gun Owners of America who attended the news conference.
“Forty-seven states have open carry. This bill does not address that issue. Only Florida, New York, and Illinois have an outright ban on it. Why are they not going all the way?” state director Luis Vales told the Phoenix.
“That’s what I want. That’s what Gun Owners of America want. That’s what our 2 million-plus members want,” Valdes added.
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