There were 120 speaker cards on the desk when Rep. Spenser Roach, R-Fort Myers, gaveled the Constitutional Rights, Rule of Law & Government Operations Subcommittee to order for consideration of a bill to allow the permitless carry of concealed firearms in Florida.
HB 543 by Rep. Charles Brannon, R-Macclenney repeals longstanding requirements for a concealed weapon license that includes fees, a criminal background check and completion of a firearms training course.
“I just don’t feel that you ought to have to jump through these government hurdles to exercise your rights to what the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution says is the right to bear arms. This bill simply removes those hurdles and makes it easier for law abiding citizens,” said Brannon.
Those who showed up to testify about the measure and to watch lawmakers debate were of three minds.
Gun rights groups like the NRA and law enforcement supported repeal of what they deride as a “government permission slip” to exercise what is a God-given right to self-defense enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Nearly half of the 44 people who spoke in support cited self-defense as one of their reasons they want to be able to carry a firearm.
Then there were the opponents, like Luis Valdes of Havanna, who called the measure a watered-down concealed carry law.
Valdes, the executive director of Gun Owners of America, and about 20 others, said Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged to sign a “constitutional carry” proposal – the right to bear arms in public without government interference – and HB 543 is not what was promised.
“Florida under a Republican supermajority state not advancing open carry is a travesty to gun owners especially for the fact that the open carry ban was passed in 1987 because of (former Miami-Dade State Attorney) Janet Reno, one of the state’s most anti-gun Democrats,” said Valdes.
Other opponents like Moms Demand Action, and a contingent of University of Central Florida March for our Lives members, and Florida State University Students Demand Action chapter called the measure shortsighted, dangerous and playing with people’s lives to further political ambitions.
“This bill does not represent the values of Floridians. The world knows this is not normal. It is not normal thinking,” said March for Our Lives representative Sara Paquette about relaxing gun laws when there has been a mass shooting at least once a week every week so far in 2023.
Democrats on the committee tried to amend the proposal to require people who want to bear arms without a license to get $100,000 in insurance, in case there is an accident. It failed.
Other amendments that went down on voice votes included a ban on firearms in sensitive places, like schools, theaters, grocery stores, shopping malls, and churches, and to require a gun safety course for those wanting to carry without a license.
“The last thing you need is somebody running around who doesn’t know how to shoot a gun. Doesn’t know how to hold a gun. Doesn’t know how to do anything with a gun with a gun,” said Rep. Dottie Joseph, D-Miami-Dade.
Joseph led the opposition. An attorney by trade, she interrogated Brannon about repealing requirements for a background check and safety courses.
Seven times her questions were ruled non-germane, or out of order by Roach, the committee chair, when she tried to get Brannon to clarify whether it would be possible for a person to be able to legally carry a firearm in public without having to submit to a criminal background check.
Brannon later explained that the current background check to get a concealed carry license will go away but a background check to purchase a gun will remain. Current law requires no background check when a gun is transferred between two private individuals.
DeSantis, House Speaker Paul Renner, and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo all support the measure, and it is nearly guaranteed to be approved by Republicans who hold a 2 – 1 advantage over Democrats in both the House and Senate.
Moms Demand Action Tallahassee volunteer Beth Dumond of Tallahassee and other members of the group wore dark red T-shirts and filled two rows of seats in the center of the committee room, despite knowing their protests and comments would not change the outcome.
“It is important that both legislators and people of Florida know that it is not unopposed that despite the way it’s being pushed through that it is not unopposed. There are people, the majority of people in Florida, who are against it,” said Dumond.
The measure, which is on a fast track to the House floor, passed on a 10 –5 party-line vote. Next stop is the Judiciary Committee, and then the bill will be scheduled for a House vote.