Florida Politics

Did a Cabinet member ask for an exemption to carry concealed guns almost anywhere?

From left: Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi sit with Lieutenant Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera and Gov. Rick Scott during the opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Tuesday, March 7.
From left: Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi sit with Lieutenant Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera and Gov. Rick Scott during the opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Tuesday, March 7. Tampa Bay Times

Three of Florida’s four highest-ranking elected officials — and potentially the lieutenant governor and the state’s 160 lawmakers, too — could be able to carry guns almost anywhere in the state under a special carve-out in Florida law being considered by the Legislature.

Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube, who filed SB 646, said one of the three members of the Florida Cabinet “approached” him about proposing the exemption, which would let the Cabinet members carry concealed anywhere in Florida where federal law doesn’t prohibit guns, so long as they have a concealed-weapons permit.

That means — unlike most of the rest of the state’s 1.7 million concealed-weapons permit-holders — those statewide elected officials could be armed in the state’s 15 “gun-free zones,” such as in public schools, airport passenger terminals, police stations, government meetings, athletic events and bars.

RELATED: “These are gun law changes Florida lawmakers could take up in 2017

Steube would not say which Cabinet member — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater or Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — wanted the law changed for their benefit. Each of those offices is elected by voters statewide; Gov. Rick Scott oversees Cabinet meetings but is not himself a member of the Cabinet.

“I had a member that approached me, and they don’t have FDLE or trooper security full-time,” Steube told reporters Tuesday, referring to the security provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Highway Patrol.

However, spokespeople for Bondi and Atwater, and Putnam himself explicitly told the Herald/Times that they had not asked for the provision or were involved with Steube’s bill.

“I wasn’t aware of that [bill] until you made us aware of it, so I’m looking forward to reading it,” Putnam told a Herald/Times reporter Tuesday.

Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray said the attorney general “absolutely” did not ask for the proposal, and Atwater spokeswoman Ashley Carr said the CFO’s office had no involvement, either.

The bill requires that to take advantage of the expanded freedom to carry concealed, the Cabinet member must have a concealed-weapons permit and not have full-time security provided by FDLE. That agency provides full-time security only for the governor — not the Cabinet, lieutenant governor or lawmakers — although security can be provided “for others upon request,” FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said.

Of the three Cabinet members, only Atwater would confirm to the Herald/Times whether he has a concealed weapons permit.

He does — but even if Steube’s bill is enacted, Atwater wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the law change. The bill wouldn’t take effect until July, and Atwater announced last month that he’s resigning after the end of the session in May for another job.

Putnam said, “I don’t discuss whether I do or I don’t” have a concealed-weapons permit. His office oversees the permits in Florida, which has the most of any state.

In declining to answer whether Bondi has a permit, her office cited the public records exemption in state law that makes identifying information of permit-holders confidential. However, that provision doesn’t preclude Bondi from saying whether she has a permit.

Meanwhile, Steube plans to broaden the proposed exemption beyond just the Cabinet. He has filed an amendment to also cover the lieutenant governor and lawmakers.

“The real reason why I did that is the judiciary has that right,” Steube said. “So if the judicial branch can carry in their courtroom, under their robes at any point in time that they want, why shouldn’t the executive and the legislative branch also have those abilities if they have a conceal-carry permit?”

Specifically, the proposed amendment covers any “elected constitutional officer identified in Article III or Article IV of the state Constitution” who is licensed and doesn’t have full-time FDLE security. That would include not only Cabinet members who have permits, but also Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera and lawmakers, if they are licensed.

The governor is also covered under Article IV, but because he has full-time FDLE security, the proposed law wouldn’t affect him regardless of whether he has a conceal-carry permit.

Steube’s measure was scheduled to be considered in his Judiciary Committee on Tuesday — the first day of the 2017 session — but time ran out so it’ll be heard at a later date. He said about 50 people wanted to speak on the bill.

It drew a large audience of supporters and opponents because of other controversial provisions. The bill would reduce penalties for open-carrying of a gun and for carrying concealed in “gun-free zones” — lowering both crimes from second-degree misdemeanors, punishable by up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail, to non-criminal offenses that carry only a $25 fine.

It also would explicitly protect from arrest concealed-weapons permit-holders who briefly display a concealed gun, a provision the gun lobby has been seeking for some time.

State Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk County, is pursuing an identical version to Steube’s bill. HB 779 hasn’t been heard yet but it is poised to be fast-tracked in the House.It’s been assigned to only two committees there, when bills normally face three hearings before reaching the floor.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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