Despite passionate efforts to derail it and decisive disagreement among the state's law enforcement officers, a National Rifle Association-backed measure to allow more than 1.4 million people to openly carry guns in Florida is ready for consideration by the full state House.
A compromise version of the plan -- HB 163, proposed by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- easily passed the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The 12-4 vote came after 2- 1/2 hours of debate that included mentions of terrorism, God and the Wild West, and several unsuccessful amendments aimed at scaling back the drastic shift in public policy.
Tallahassee Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda was the only Democrat to side with Republicans in supporting the measure.
If it becomes law, concealed-weapons permit-holders could carry handguns openly wherever they're allowed to carry concealed. Private businesses -- ranging from grocery stores and bars to Disney World -- would be able to decide whether people can carry guns, but no public place -- such as a public hospital -- could ban them.
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The Senate version -- SB 300, sponsored by Gaetz's father, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville -- awaits consideration before that chamber's Judiciary Committee, its second of three committee stops. Chairman Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, has said he'll give it a hearing.
Matt Gaetz's measure is likely to earn favor in the full House, where 81 of the 120 members are Republicans, but Democrats said they plan to continue fighting.
Republicans and gun-rights supporters heralded the proposal on Thursday as one that fortifies constitutional rights or what some -- including Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice -- called a "God-given right to openly carry weapons."
But Democrats and gun-control advocates blast the measure because they fear it would jeopardize law enforcement officers' safety as well as public safety. They say it could harm Florida's "family friendly" tourism industry, and some also worry about the ready access terrorists could have to openly carrying legally purchased handguns.
To minimize that "glaring problem," Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, said he plans to bring an amendment to the House floor that would ban people on the federal no-fly list from getting concealed-weapons permits in Florida.
"What's the chance of it getting on? I don't know, but members need to show where they stand on that issue," Moskowitz said after the hearing. "These are things that should have been fixed in committee."
The Republican-stacked committee handily rejected an amendment by Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, which would have gut the bill almost entirely and would have mirrored recommendations from the Florida Sheriffs Association.
It would have "removed open carry from the open carry bill," as Gaetz put it, but would have targeted a problem that the NRA has said is its primary concern: the prosecution of people who accidentally display concealed weapons.
There's no data available on how often that happens. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement previously told the Herald/Times, 57 people statewide were arrested between November 2014 and October 2015 for violating the state's conceal-carry permit statute. But there's no way to break that statistic down further to know how many of those arrests were for someone who might have accidentally carried openly versus them not having a permit or committing some other violation.
Marion Hammer, the NRA's Tallahassee lobbyist, said Kerner's fix wasn't good enough. She said lawmakers aimed to resolve the same problem in 2011 but it didn't work and NRA attorneys believe the only solution is to allow open carry in general.
Gaetz and other gun-rights proponents said the bill was about more than resolving incidents of accidental open carry. Gaetz said he has "broader goals" and "wants to vindicate the Second Amendment."
Kerner, one of the Democrats' most vocal opponents, said after the hearing that he didn't expect the committee would approve his amendment, but he's "not giving up."
"I think you'll be surprised by who comes out in support of this resolution in the near future," he said.
Gaetz's bill was amended, though, to factor in at least some concerns by law enforcement. Gaetz said the changes were the "consequence" of negotiations with the Florida Police Chiefs Association, talks that Hammer said she was also party to.
Under the revisions, gun owners could openly carry handguns loaded or unloaded, but they'd have to be holstered. Gone are some restrictions on judges and law enforcement that Gaetz's original bill imposed, which would have limited how police could confirm people openly carrying had the required permit, as well as how judges decided cases.
However, police officers would remain vulnerable to lawsuits if someone accuses the officer of violating their right to bear arms.
In one of several last-minute amendments he filed, Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, sought to eliminate that penalty because he first wants to see "a clear record that the law is not being followed properly."
The measure drew praise from Democrats, because they feel the threat of a lawsuit could put a chilling effect on police officers and waste taxpayer dollars in litigation.
"The last thing we want to do is pound law enforcement into submission to not be able to enforce our laws," Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said.
Hammer argued that without penalties, "there's no incentive to follow the law if you don't like it."
Wood also initially sought -- but later withdrew -- an amendment to let lawmakers pack heat in legislative sessions and official committee meetings, something that's prohibited under current law with few exceptions. Judiciary Chairman Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, said the idea has "some merit," but there had been no chance to vet the proposal, which Wood submitted early Thursday.
Meanwhile, the hearing revealed clear discord among law enforcement officials across the state.
A handful of conservative sheriffs in mostly rural counties spoke in favor of allowing open carry, but 70 percent of the state's 67 sheriffs said previously they're against it.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, speaking for the sheriffs' association, said the legislation -- although slightly improved under Gaetz's amendment -- still poses a risk to public safety and hinders officers' ability to tell "the good guy from the bad guy" in active-shooter situations.
The Florida State Fraternal Order of Police also is against the bill, although the Florida Police Chiefs Association is on board because of Gaetz's changes.
However, Kerner questioned how valid the police chiefs association's position is, because he said he knows of several chiefs who don't support open carry.
West Palm Beach Police Chief Bryan Kummerlen is one of them, and Kerner also read aloud Thursday a letter to the association from Treasure Island Police Chief Armand Boudreau in Pinellas County -- which Kerner said he obtained through a public records request -- that expresses Boudreau's opposition to open carry and questions the association's decision.
In advocating for open carry at the start of the hearing, Gaetz again cited lower violent crime rates in the 45 states that allow open carry with varying regulations, a correlation Politifact has rated "Half True."
"There's no evidence it impairs public safety in any way," he said.
However there are examples. Two months ago, Colorado's open-carry law came under scrutiny after a caller reported a man walking down the street armed with a rifle, and the 911 dispatcher dismissed the caller's concerns -- citing the man's right to openly carry under state law. The man, Noah Harpham, shortly after shot three people to death.
When asked about that example after the hearing, Gaetz said: "To every extent that our citizens can take more responsibility over their own safety, we enhance the public safety of the collective society."
"Of course there are circumstances where people use firearms in a bad way," he said. "I don't think that's a function of the law; that's a function of the individual."
He said confusion among 911 dispatchers hasn't played out in Texas, where an open-carry law recently took effect.