Efforts to change how and where more than 1.5 million people with concealed weapons licenses in Florida can carry handguns easily passed the state House on Wednesday.
But both proposals face increasingly diminished odds of being heard any further in the Senate, which makes it unlikely they’ll become law this year.
Nonetheless, the prospect of allowing some gun owners in Florida to carry openly in most public places and to carry concealed on state college and university campuses ignited six hours of debate over Tuesday and Wednesday evenings on the House floor.
Democrats decried the bills as a “recipe for disaster” and a “monumental shift” in gun policy that threatens public safety. On open-carry, they voiced fears of increased racial-profiling and gang violence in urban areas, like South Florida.
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Meanwhile, Republicans accused critics of “fear-mongering” and argued gun-rights advocates were the “voice of reason” by defending Floridians’ Second Amendment rights and ensuring residents are “empowered” and not “defenseless.”
The guns-on-campus bill (HB 4001) passed, 80-37, with three Democrats — Reps. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda of Tallahassee, Joseph Geller of Aventura and Randolph Bracy of Orlando — joining the chamber’s large Republican majority in support.
Geller and Bracy changed their votes afterward, but that doesn’t count in the official record. Rehwinkel Vasilinda co-sponsored the bill.
Republican Reps. Ray Pilon of Sarasota and Bill Hager of Delray Beach opposed it.
A couple hours later, the open-carry bill (HB 163) passed, 80-38. Rehwinkel Vasilinda again voted with the Republicans. Republican Reps. Chris Latvala, of Clearwater, and Keith Perry, of Gainesville, joined the rest of the Democrats in opposition.
The two measures are endorsed by the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups, but opponents cite numerous safety concerns.
1,512,813 have concealed-weapons permits in Florida, as of Jan. 31
The campus-carry bill, led by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, also passed the House easily last year but stalled in the Senate — where it’s all-but-certain to die again.
The open-carry proposal, offered by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, could face the same demise. If both did become law, concealed-weapons permit holders would be able to openly carry on public college and university campuses.
Speaking to reporters earlier Wednesday, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said the proposals are “in trouble,” as far as the Senate is concerned.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said two weeks ago that he won’t hear the campus-carry proposal in the judiciary committee for the second year in a row, and Gardiner confirmed Wednesday that Diaz de la Portilla could change his mind and not hear the open-carry plan, either.
“I think now he has some concerns about open carry,” Gardiner said. “It’s not my intent to pull those bills out of committee, so I would say, yeah, they’re probably in trouble.”
The open-carry measure was amended Tuesday to let Florida’s 160 lawmakers to carry concealed guns in legislative chambers and official meetings. All others who attend meetings, from Gov. Rick Scott to visitors to those testifying, are still prohibited from carrying weapons. One of the exceptions: law enforcement.
The amendment by Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, was one of almost two dozen proposed changes that representatives vetted and a handful they approved that night. Wood said he sought the conceal-carry exemption for lawmakers out of equity, because “we allow the judiciary — an equal co-branch of government — to have that privilege.”
Steube filed a related bill this session to let all concealed-weapons permit holders carry concealed in most any government meeting at the local, county and state level. It hasn’t been heard.
Most amendments debated for open-carry were offered by Democrats seeking to exclude where permit-holders could openly carry. Each Democratic amendment failed Tuesday by wide margins with strong Republican opposition.
The Democrats’ suggestions included:
▪ Limiting high-capacity magazines on openly carried weapons;
▪ Restricting foreigners seeking U.S. citizenship from receiving a concealed weapons permit,
▪ Prohibiting open carrying within 500 feet of movie theaters, religious institutions, voting locations, school safety zones and bars or restaurants that serve alcohol.
To plead their case, Democrats invoked several mass-shooting incidents from recent years, including the San Bernardino, Calif., shooting two months ago and the Charleston, S.C., church shooting last summer.
Republicans and Rehwinkel Vasilinda said the examples cited weren’t relevant to the debate, and they rejected the amendments as unnecessary, redundant or infringements on citizens’ right to bear arms.
We’ve become so inflexible on this issue that we can’t even agree that guns don’t belong within 1 foot of a church.
State Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs
Gaetz has promoted his open-carry bill as a means to “vindicate” Floridians’ Second Amendment rights. The Florida Police Chiefs Association supports it, but groups representing sheriffs and police officers are opposed.
Critics argue that having Florida join 45 other states that allow open carry — with varying regulations — could harm the state’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry and subject people to “intimidation” when gun-owners carry in public.
Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, and several other black lawmakers said they feared open carry would increase racial-profiling by police, as well as acts of violent crime in urban areas.
“In the South Florida area, we already have a recurring problem,” Jones said of black-on-black crime and gang violence. “Help us make sure another mother doesn’t have to bury another son.”
On restricting open carry in certain places, Republicans argued that a provision added earlier to the bill — fortifying property owners’ rights to limit whether patrons can carry weapons concealed, openly or at all — was sufficient, but that only frustrated Democrats further.
“We’ve become so inflexible on this issue,” Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, said during Tuesday night’s session. “It’s OK to infringe on the right to bear arms at Disney World — you’re all OK with that — but you’re not willing to do it within one foot of a church.”
Among the approved amendments, though, was a compromise offered by Gaetz that addressed one concern Democrats discussed last week; it would allow public hospitals to restrict guns from being openly carried.
Steube and Rehwinkel’s “guns on campus” bill also drew considerable debate.
Republicans said it was an “injustice” that campus shooters break the law and bring guns on campus, while professors, students and staff are left defenseless.
This fear-mongering of allowing a mature adult to make a mature decision has to stop.
State Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness
“I think that people should have the right to defend themselves, and our gun-free zones have shown themselves to be targets time and time again for terrorists and mass shooters,” Steube said Tuesday.
Democrats over both days of sessions questioned the safety of allowing guns on campuses — environments, they argued, that include parties with alcohol and drugs, young adults dealing with mentally and emotionally stressful situations and children who attend daycare, camps or charter school programs.
“We should not expose our children to this danger of someone carrying a loaded firearm,” said Rep. Vic Torres Jr., D-Orlando.
But Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, had a firm rebuttal for critics: “This fear-mongering of allowing a mature adult to make a mature decision has to stop.”