Picture this different view of public life in Florida.
In a college lecture hall, the instructor is licensed to carry a gun and has a Glock holstered on her hip. In a public meeting at city hall, the mayor, also licensed, is carrying a sidearm. A resident — yes, licensed and openly armed — strolls into baggage claim at the airport to pick up visiting relatives.
These and other locations currently are dubbed “gun free” zones because state law prohibits concealed-carry permit-holders from carrying, and it’s that restriction that gun rights advocates say makes gun-free zones vulnerable to attack.
Within hours after Esteban Santiago shot up the Terminal 2 baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6, killing five and wounding six, gun-rights advocates offered a familiar refrain: Gun-free zones don’t work.
Because criminals are going to break the law regardless, they argue, the solution to less gun violence is more guns — and fewer restrictions — for “law abiding” residents, who might then deter potential shooters or intervene and stop them from doing more harm.
“Here we go again. Another gun-free zone. Another place where a shooter can take lives and cause injury, and there’s nobody there armed to protect anybody or to stop the shooter,” said Marion Hammer, the NRA’s longtime Tallahassee lobbyist.
Proponents of Second Amendment rights say both the Fort Lauderdale shooting and the Pulse nightclub massacre last summer in Orlando are examples of why restrictions on permitted gun owners don’t help prevent tragedy — and why Florida’s gun laws should be opened up to afford more freedom for people to defend themselves.
With gun-free zones, “you’re never going to prevent crime from occurring because you’re just not going to know what a criminal is going to do the next day, but what you are doing is preventing law-abiding citizens from defending themselves,” said state Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican who is among those seeking this year to allow for the open carrying of guns by concealed-carry permit-holders and to lift bans on specific gun-free zones in Florida.
But Dania Beach Democratic Rep. Evan Jenne — whose district includes the Fort Lauderdale airport and whose father, Ken, is a former Broward County sheriff — said it’s unrealistic to think armed bystanders could successfully intervene as a hero without consequence. The more likely scenario, he and gun violence experts argue, would be that when police arrive on scene, they wouldn’t know which person with the gun was the instigating shooter, and that could delay aid to victims.
“You may get lucky and it may work once or twice,” Jenne said, “but I firmly believe in my heart of hearts that you’re just going to end up with a more chaotic situation and more people hurt and killed.”
Under current law, Florida prohibits the open carrying of handguns and requires permits for anyone to carry concealed in public. Steube said it’s having those permits that makes those gun owners “law abiding,” because individuals have to pass a background check to get a permit and it can be revoked if they commit a crime.
Even then, Florida’s 1.7 million permit-holders are still barred by state law from carrying in more than a dozen locations, such as schools or airport terminals. That status quo could change if lawmakers, like Steube, successfully pass legislation that’s been filed for the upcoming session.
“It’s misguided to think we even have gun-free zones, because actually law-abiding people are going to be the only ones who observe those rules,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, another gun rights proponent in the Legislature. “Just like we do with neighborhood crime watches, we have to empower people to take charge of their own responsibility for themselves and others if we’re going to reduce the number of people harmed.”
But gun experts and recent studies say easier access to guns won’t lead to a safer state.
“If it were true that having everyone armed all the time in our society was a recipe for a safer America, states that have more guns everywhere would be safer,” said Ari Freilich, staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “They would have lower rates of gun violence, gun deaths and mass shootings than states that have taken steps to take guns out of the public sphere.”
But that’s not the case, he said. Furthermore: “The data just does not support the idea that crazed mass shooters target gun-free zones,” Freilich said. “In fact, most mass shootings have occurred in areas that are not gun-free zones; most of the mass shootings in this country are domestic-violence-related and they occur in the home.”
While gun control advocates argue Florida’s laws are weak, Steube counters that Florida actually has “a pretty strict regulation” compared to other states, because of the need to have a concealed-carry permit in order to carry a gun outside one’s home and because of the process required in obtaining one: Passing a background check and completing a training course.
“In Florida, we don’t have a right to carry. You have a privilege,” Steube said. “You have to ask the state of Florida … to give you permission to have a conceal-carry permit.”
“Outside of your home in Florida, if you’re just a normal citizen, you can’t carry a gun for your own defense and protection,” Steube added.
He pointed to the 10 or so states that have what’s called “constitutional carry” as examples of states with the most generous laws for gun-owners. In those states, like Vermont or Missouri, residents don’t need permits to carry guns freely and openly in public.
“Would I ever get something like that passed, with as controversial as some of these conceal-carry statutes are? No, but I would support that. I believe that’s what the Constitution says,” Steube said.
Gun violence experts, though, caution against “constitutional carry” laws because “it essentially means background check-less carry in the public square,” Freilich said.
Steube argued, under that scenario, there would still be background checks when a gun is purchased. However, federal law requires checks only if a gun is bought from a licensed dealer. Florida is one of many states that don’t mandate universal background checks for every gun sale.
Herald/Times reporters Steve Bousquet and Michael Auslen contributed to this report.
In the past seven months, mass shootings at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport have brought renewed scrutiny to Florida’s gun laws. The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau examined two competing ideas to change those laws: One would ease access to guns in hopes that armed bystanders could prevent more tragedies. The other would restrict gun access, making it harder for would-be killers to obtain weapons. But in a state Capitol where guns are a divisive and sometimes politically toxic topic, dramatic change is almost certain to fail.