Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Gun lobby pushing ‘open carry’ law for Florida

Dale Norman was packing heat. No doubt about that.

On February 19, 2012, Norman strolled down Federal Highway in Fort Pierce with his .38-caliber pistol stuck in a holster on his belt.

It was clearly visible. A sight alarming enough that a passerby called 911. A few minutes later a patrol car pulled up to the 23-year-old gunslinger on the sidewalk just outside the Peking Chinese Restaurant.

The young man was busted for a misdemeanor, a violation of Florida Statute 790.053 which prohibits “any person to openly carry on or about his or her person any firearm or electric weapon or device.” For gun nuts, Dale Norman had just become their very own Rose Parks.

Somehow, Florida has remained one of six states that prohibits knuckleheads from traipsing around with their pistols on display like they were living in Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1881.

That, of course, has driven gun rights absolutists crazy. (Perhaps the proper description is “crazier.”) Every year, they spit and sputter and lobby the state legislature to pass an “open carry” bill. And while Florida legislators regularly capitulate to the whims and wishes of the NRA, an law permitting the open display of firearms has remained elusive.

Opponents, led by the Florida Sheriffs Association, have managed to beat down the notion, though, in my wistful moments, I like to think that common sense also played a part in keeping our state legislators from tossing the state's concealed firearm law. Because, they surely understand that most of their constituents are profoundly disturbed by the sight of some non-law enforcement yokel flaunting his shooter in a public place.

But the Norman arrest has given Florida Carry (representing the state’s most fervent open carry advocates – think of its members as the NRA’s wackier cousins) another way to undo 790.053. Norman's case became a cause.

His lawyers first tried to convince a county court jury that he really didn’t mean to display his pistol as he ambled through town that day. “Unbeknownst to Mr. Norman, the weight of his pistol caused his shorts to sag, making part of his holster visible to the public,” his attorney argued in an appeal brief.

That was a feeble tactic. Police video of the arrest show a young man wearing a tight, white, revealing strap t-shirt. It beggars the imagination to think he wasn’t aware his attire was showing off his firearm. The gun was visible on the police video when the patrol car was still halfway down the block.

The jury didn’t buy it. Neither did St. Lucie County Judge Cliff Barnes. “At trial, there was no credible evidence presented that the firearm had been concealed before defendant’s arrest, or that it could have been, considering his manner of dress,” Judge Barnes wrote as he denied a motion to set aside Norman's conviction.

But the real argument, the reason Florida Carry took on an obscure misdemeanor arrest, has to do with the constitutionality of Florida's concealed weapon laws. Norman, by the way, had a concealed weapon permit at the time of his arrest. His problem was that his weapon wasn’t concealed.

Florida Carry is arguing that the state law prohibiting the flaunting of firearms in public is over-broad and constitutionally vague. The gun lawyers complain Florida law “prohibits the carry of firearms that are unconcealed even for those people to whom the state has issued a license to carry a concealed weapon or firearm.”

It’s as if they’re arguing that unconcealed is hardly different from concealed except the Florida legislature inadvertently stuck two teensy letters in front.

So far, the appeals have mostly dealt with jurisdictional and procedural issues, moving over these last two years from the county court to the Fourth District Court of Appeal to the Florida Supreme Court back to the county judge back to the Fourth DCA. Just last week, Norman’s attorneys were fending off motions from the Florida Attorney General trying to counter arguments that the Fourth District Court of Appeal should consider the constitutional issues raised in the case as “issues of great public importance.”

An angry e-mail sent out to its members by Florida Carry last week says something about how far out Florida Carry sits on the political spectrum. The organization is incensed that the famously conservative, pro-gun Attorney General Pam Bondi's office has raised complex procedural issues as it fended off Norman’s appeals. “The attorney general needs to get her anti-gun and anti-self-defense underlings in line if she wants the support of gun owners in the coming election.”

From a columnist’s standpoint, I’d agree with Florida Carry that, so far, most of the arcane legal arguments in a supposed landmark case don’t make for fun reading. But I do appreciate the citation offer by the Florida Carry legal team from an 1850 decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court, which ruled that Louisianans had the right to carry their guns openly. “This is the right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, and which is calculated to incite men to a manly and noble defense of themselves, if necessary, and of their country, without any tendency to secret advantages and unmanly assassinations.”

I’m not sure gun-toting Floridians, considering all the carnage caused by firearms in this state, have avoided a tendency toward secret advantages and unmanly assassination.

The appeals courts haven’t yet gotten to the nub of Florida Carry’s argument, though Judge Barnes (who fined Norman $300 for his world-shaking transgression) didn't seem to buy the argument that Florida's concealed gun statute is unconstitutional. “Rather than infringe the fundamental right to bear arms protected by the Second Amendment and by the Florida Constitution, the challenged law merely imposes a reasonable—and therefore constitutionally permissible—regulation of the manner of bearing firearms.”

Of course Judge Barnes may not have the final word.

Meanwhile, those of us happy that we’re not living in a tempestuous reprise of Tombstone, 1881, or Louisiana, 1850, are quite happy that gun lovers still must still keep their fetishes concealed.

Florida law also forbids going about in public places wielding long guns. The advantages of that statute have been become evident over the last few months with the news out of Texas, where long gun displays aren’t prohibited, and where Texas Open Carry members have been showing up at fast food restaurants and department stores with military assault weapons strapped to their backs. The tactic seems designed to intimidate anyone who’d like to regulate the kind of firearms employed in massacres like Sandy Hook and Aurora. Or anyone who just doesn’t want to be sitting down with their kids at a burger joint, like at that Jack In The Box in Fort Worth last month, when five guys walk in with assault rifles slung on their backs.

The gunmen claimed they were just exercising their overblown notion of Second Amendment rights. Fort Worth police reported that their demonstration prompted Jack In The Box employees to lock themselves in the restaurant’s walk-in freezer.

Apparently some folks, even in Texas, are not thrilled to see gunslingers in their midst.