TALLAHASSEE -- A controversial measure that would allow Floridians with concealed-weapons permits to carry those items openly in public easily cleared its first hurdle on Tuesday, but the legislation still faces several more tests before it could become law.
Florida has prohibited the open carry of firearms for nearly 20 years, and efforts in recent years by gun-rights lobbyists to change that status quo haven't been successful. The latest attempt, led by state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, got off to a promising start Tuesday when the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee passed HB 163 by an 8-4 vote despite resistance from critics.
Gaetz said the bill "restores and vindicates" Second Amendment rights and promotes public safety. Those with concerns said the proposal should, at a minimum, include better training requirements and also better shield property owners' rights if they don't want weapons in their homes or businesses.
Vehement opponents said an open-carry law in Florida would instill fear, rather than calm.
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"When I am out at Starbucks and there's a cop there with his gun, it's intimidating and it's scary," said Shawn Bartelt, a retiree and mother of two teenagers from Orlando. "I do not want to walk around when I walk my dogs and know that somebody's carrying a gun out there. I don't want my kids raised in a world where we're being less civilized."
Gaetz argued fighting for gun-owners' rights has the opposite effect, and he said federal crime statistics are on his side.
"While we will certainly hear from shrill voices on the left that open carry will lead to the wild, wild west, that is not borne out by any of the data we have," Gaetz said. He said U.S. Department of Justice statistics from 2012 actually show less violent crime in states with open-carry laws.
The debate over open carry comes as House and Senate committees last month advanced a separate proposal to allow concealed weapons on college campuses. Should both of these gun measures become law, permit-holders could -- by default -- openly carry on college campuses, too.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott said Tuesday, while visiting a Pasco-Hernando State College campus in Wesley Chapel, that he "fully supports" the Second Amendment but would need to review both gun proposals before forming an opinion.
Public opinion -- according to one poll -- is against allowing, at least, concealed guns on college campuses. A statewide poll released Monday by University of South Florida researchers found 73 percent of adult Floridians want to keep banning concealed weapons on college campuses. The poll did not gauge support for openly carried weapons.
Florida is one of only five states and the District of Columbia to prohibit openly carrying firearms and other restricted weapons.
"I like to see Florida on the list of states that enhances people's rights and makes people stronger, not on the list of states that restricts the choices and the rights of our citizens," Gaetz said during a news conference prior to Tuesday's hearing.
Gaetz's father, state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, introduced the Senate companion, SB 300, which was referred to three committees just hours after Matt Gaetz's bill secured its first favorable vote.
Two other House committees have yet to schedule hearings on Matt Gaetz's bill. The 8-4 vote Tuesday fell largely along party lines. State Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, joined three Democrats in opposition.
Democrats said the bill should include "sensible measures" to try to keep firearms out of the hands of those with mental health problems, and it also should include additional training requirements for permit-holders.
"If you think for a second that because you have a concealed-weapon permit that you are capable and knowledgeable about maintaining your weapon in a fight, you are wrong. This is a striking and frightening concept to have an open-carry policy in the state of Florida without any mention of how to safely protect and maintain your weapon," said state Rep. David Kerner, D-Lake Worth. "It's unconscionable."
The Florida Sheriffs Association has not taken a position on the bill, but Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, speaking for himself, praised it as a helpful tool in crime prevention.
"This comes down to giving our citizens the immediate ability to protect themselves," he said.
The Florida Chamber said it supports the bill so long as lawmakers add more assurances in it to protect private property rights. Gun-rights advocates said the bill doesn't prohibit private property owners from banning guns on their own land as they're able to do now.
"This doesn't change who carries or where they carry, only how they carry," said Eric Friday, a lobbyist for the gun-rights group Florida Carry. Aside from granting the right to openly carry, the legislation also changes the standard by which police can make an arrest if they suspect someone is unlicensed while carrying a weapon, either concealed or openly. "Reasonable grounds" would no longer be a sufficient option; police would need to have probable cause.
Any government official who infringes on the rights of a licensed gun-owner to openly carry without having probable cause would be subject to a civil fine of $5,000, and municipalities could be sued for $100,000 under the bill.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Josh Solomon contributed to this story.