TALLAHASSEE – Florida looks bound to soon allow people to carry guns without the need for a concealed weapons permit, a showcase, pro-gun move demanded by Gov. Ron DeSantis before his widely expected run for the Republican presidential nomination.
But the measure is being blistered by both sides, with dozens of gun advocates and opponents spending the past two days railing against it in House and Senate committees.
Many critics said the legislation doesn’t go far enough, because it still bars “open carry,” which would allow weapons to be freely displayed.
Gun opponents say it’s just dangerous to make it easier for more people to get firearms in a state that is home to two of the most shocking mass shootings of the past decade, Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“We’re tired of watching people die,” Olivia Solomon, a University of Central Florida student told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “You can ask any member of GenZ and we’ve been affected by gun violence.”
In turn, those supporting freer gun laws also derided the legislation (SB 150, HB 543).
They attacked Republican lawmakers, DeSantis and law enforcement for falling short, because the legislation fails to allow open carry and continues allowing governments to establish gun-free zones in schools, government buildings and other settings.
“We’re insulted by this bill,” said Bob White, a leader of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida. “It’s a slap in the face to the Second Amendment community.”
Another, Luis Valdes of Gun Owners of America, said dismissively, “This bill changes nothing.”
A gun opponent, Gay Valimont of Moms Demand Action, pointed to the dizzying cross-currents of criticism.
“We’re in Bizarro World,” Valimont said. “Apparently no one’s for this bill today.”
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Still, the measure cleared the Senate panel Monday on a 5-3 vote. The House Judiciary Committee also voted 17-6 Tuesday to advance its version of the legislation (HB 543).
Republicans supported the measure, with Democrats opposed.
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DeSantis has clamored for ‘constitutional carry’ bill
DeSantis has clamored for what supporters like to call “constitutional carry,” ridiculing Republican legislative leaders of the past two years for not prioritizing such legislation. He’s been ratcheting up his call for expanded gun rights as he positions for a likely White House run most expect to see announced after the Legislature adjourns in May.
But many gun advocates said the House and Senate approach doesn’t meet this constitutional carry standard, because it doesn’t enable gun owners to openly brandish their weapons, keeping such displays a violation that allows second-degree misdemeanor charges.
“Why is it that my Republican supermajority Legislature in this state cannot seem to back up their own talk, their own advertising, their own describing of this bill?” Chris Rose of Alachua County, told House members Tuesday.
“I want to hear ya’ll actually back up what you’re saying. I want open carry, I want campus carry. I don’t want to be disarmed when I have a right to protect myself and somebody else,” said Rose, who was arrested last October outside a Republican Party fundraiser while holding a sign reading, “I will not be disarmed by DeSantis.”
His trespassing charge was later dismissed.
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Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, conceded the legislation doesn’t go as far as many want. But he called the measure a “step.”
“Take the win. And come back to fight another day,” Leek told gun advocates.
Another DeSantis v. Trump moment
DeSantis’ support for expanding gun rights could become a flashpoint in a Republican primary contest with former President Donald Trump, who has had an uneven relationship with the pro-gun lobby.
Trump alienated many supporters in 2018 by announcing support for gun safety legislation, including expanded background checks and limiting some gun purchases – efforts long opposed by the National Rifle Association.
DeSantis, despite a 100% rating from the NRA, has had his own troubles with ardent Second Amendment followers. The Washington Post reported that last fall, the governor’s campaign wanted concealed weapons banned from his election-night party in Tampa, but sought to blame city officials for the decision.
In an email exchange reported by the Post, the city refused to go along with the campaign’s pitch that it ban party-goers from bringing in their concealed weapons.
A DeSantis spokesman Tuesday didn’t deal directly with the open carry dispute. Press Secretary Bryan Griffin pointed to comments the governor has made praising “constitutional carry.”
“As with all legislation still subject to the legislative process (and thus varying iterations), the governor will review the merits of the bill in final form when it is passed and delivered to our office,” he said.
Was a deal cut?
Gun rights supporters accused Republican leaders, law enforcement and the state’s tourism and business communities of hatching a deal intended to hype what they say is only a modest step toward expanding gun access.
The permitless carry legislation looks ready for votes in the full House and Senate during the legislative session’s opening week. The Republican-controlled Legislature kicks off the 2023 session March 7 and is likely to be heavily shaded by a DeSantis wish list heavily infused with measures aimed at wooing GOP primary voters.
Florida could become the 26th state to allow people to carry concealed loaded guns without permits under the measures, which have been endorsed by the Florida Sheriffs Association. The legislation also expands school campus safety efforts, including extending the armed guardian program established after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School slaughter to private schools.
Florida’s concealed weapons permitting would continue, under the proposal, since some permitholders might want them to carry concealed weapons in other states, under reciprocity agreements, supporters said.
Florida has 2.6 million concealed weapons permits. And residents who receive a permit must have undergone firearms training, along with clearing a background check that shows they are not convicted felons or fall under a host of other restrictions.
The permitless carry approach backed by state Republican leaders doesn’t change current laws for buying a gun, which includes a background check. But it would lift the proof of competency with a firearm requirement now included in the concealed weapons permit.
Meanwhile, a group of student leaders from Florida State University and Florida A&M University joined Democratic lawmakers on the steps of the old Capitol building to protest the bill.
“We are from a generation where so many people have been indirectly or directly impacted by gun violence,” said Alexis Dorman, a sophomore and president of FSU College Democrats, who organized the event. “It’s scary, especially being in a state looking to get rid of permits.”
House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell of Tampa called the legislation a “recipe for disaster” that had to be remembered at the ballot box.
“Your generation has seen so much senseless gun violence,” Driskell said. “But what you haven’t seen is enough being done to stop it from happening.”
Douglas Soule of the USA TODAY Florida Capital Bureau contributed to this report.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport
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