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Legislature shoots down open carry

As the gun debate rages on the national stage, the Florida House and Senate are faced with a handful of bills that seek to either restrict or expand gun rights in the state.

Citizens find themselves taking sides, especially in Madison County where gun ownership is common. However, the Senate is not as easy as a “for” or “against” vote as the process is long and involved. Bills are referred to a handful of committees before they can be voted upon. In committee, bills are discussed, presented to various experts, amended and voted on. Amendments can be made into bills, even as late as moments before its final vote on the Senate floor. Multiple bills on the same topic can be going through committee concurrently. Committee chairmen can kill a bill by simply ignoring it. Bills have to travel through both the House and Senate before being set upon the governor’s desk for final approval.

As it stands, there are multiple bills going through the House and Senate concerning gun control policies. Four of those bills specifically involve the issue of open carry. As of Monday, March 7, all of them have been shot down, dashing any hopes of constituents who wanted open carry in Florida. The history of these bills and their contents follow:

House Bill 163

Allowed Open Carry: Yes

Progress: Passed in the House

Location: Died in Judiciary

House Bill 163 allows the open carry of firearms under two provisions: 1) that the person openly carrying the weapon be a concealed carry permit-holder and 2) that the weapon be properly holstered. The weapon can be loaded or unloaded as the permit-holder pleases.

The weapon can be: a firearm, excluding a machine gun; electronic weapon or device such as a stun gun; a tear gas gun; a billie club or a knife.

Restrictions apply. The bill leaves the rights of a property owner or employer intact; a property owner or lessee may continue to prohibit firearms on their private property and an employer may prohibit employees from carrying a firearm at work. Furthermore, brandishing this weapon outside of actual self-defense is still a crime.

The bill would have still made it unlawful to carry — openly or concealed — a firearm or weapon while intoxicated by an alcoholic beverage, chemical substance or controlled substance.

According to the bill, a person that is illegally present in the United States would not be eligible for a concealed carry permit issued by the state of Florida.

Concealed carry permit-holders, while being allowed to openly carry their weapons, would not be allowed to carry them into the following places: a place of nuisance; a law enforcement station, such as the police station; highway patrol station or Sheriff’s office; a prison or jail; a courthouse; a courtroom, except by the judge or anyone the judge allows to carry a weapon; a polling place; a government meeting, such as a school board meeting or county commission meeting; any meeting of the Legislature, except by a Legislator who is a licensee; any athletic event that does not have to do with firearms; any elementary or secondary school; any career center or any place licensed to sell alcohol for on-premises consumption, such as a bar or any airport, unless for the purpose of shipping as checked baggage. Lastly, the bill prohibits the open or concealed carry of firearms on a public college campus, unless the licensee is a registered student, employee or faculty member and the weapon is only a stun gun designed solely for defensive purposes.

This bill was heavily contended in the House. It passed in three committees, including the Criminal Justice Subcommittee, Justice Appropriations Subcommittee and Judiciary Committee. In the Criminal Justice Subcommittee, the vote was 8-4 in favor of the bill. In the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, the vote was 7-6 in favor of the bill. In the Judiciary Committee, the vote was 12-4 in favor of the bill.

It passed the House with a vote of 80-38 on Feb. 3. Representative Halsey Beshears (R, District 7) voted in favor of the bill.  HB 163 is now in the Senate. In the Senate, it was referred to three committees on Feb. 10: Criminal Justice, Judiciary and Rules. It was essentially killed in the Judiciary committee, as the bill was never placed on the agenda.

HB 163 makes many changes, but open-carry proponents thought it was the ticket to open carry in Florida, as it broadens the rights of permit-holders, while still regulating the use and carry of firearms.

Senate Bill 300

Allowed Open Carry: Yes

Progress: Moving through Senate

Location: Died in Judiciary

Senate Bill 300 allows broader open carry allowances than HB 163.

Unlike the previous bill, it makes no mention of prohibited places for a licensee to carry. It also makes no mention of prohibiting an illegal alien from receiving a concealed carry permit. It makes no mention of property owners’ or employers’ rights to prohibit carrying on private property. The individual must be a concealed carry permit-holder, but the bill does not require that the weapon be properly holstered.

SB 300 declares it a breach of the peace to carry a firearm or weapon unlicensed. Carrying a weapon unlicensed would result in a misdemeanor. Carrying a firearm unlicensed would result in a felony charge.

The bill also states that unless probable cause exists to believe that a person has committed a crime, an officer who “infringes upon the rights” of a permit-holder may be subject to fines, damages and even loss of employment.

SB 300 broadens the rights of permit-holders with little regulation. It criminalizes officers who “infringe upon the rights of” a person carrying a gun but does not define what constitutes infringement. The bill also does not address the rights of real property owners or employers to prohibit or require firearms on their property or in their businesses.

SB 300 was introduced to the Senate and referred to three committees in October of last year.  On Oct. 20, it passed the Criminal Justice committee with a slim margin of 3-2. It landed in Judiciary, where it was never placed on the agenda, and essentially died.

Senate Bill 612

Allows Open Carry: Yes

Progress: Moving through Senate

Location: Amendment withdrawn

Senate Bill 612 was a latecomer to the game. Senator Don Gaetz (R, District 1) was the major player behind both SB 300 and HB 163. After those bills died in committee, Gaetz added open carry language to SB 612.

This bill originally made only one change to the existing concealed carry statutes; it would allow a slingshot to be removed from the list of items that are considered banned weapons for concealed carry permit-holders to use. A slingshot is a lead ball affixed to the end of a thin rope with a monkey’s fist knot. If it seems a little primitive, that is because it is; the weapon originated as a sailor’s tool to cast ropes but became a popular weapon in the 1800s.

On March 2, however, Senator Gaetz proposed an amendment to the bill that adds language to HB 163.

The amendment would allow the open carry of weapons by concealed carry permit-holders, provided that the weapon is holstered. The weapon could be loaded or unloaded as the permit holder pleases. The bill, as amended, would allow public hospitals to prohibit openly carrying weapons on their premises. It also declares it a breach of peace to carry a weapon, openly or concealed, without a license. This amendment does protect the rights of employers to control gun use or carry on the premises and also the rights of property owners and lessees.

The amendment was Senator Gaetz’s last hope to see open carry to the governor’s desk. However, those hopes were dashed on Monday, March 7, when a point of order (in sports, think yellow flag) was called on his amendment; because the amendment contained language that had already been ignored by a committee chair, it could not be included in a bill that had passed that committee without the amendment.

Senate Bill 68

Allows Open Carry: Yes

Progress: Moving through Senate

Location: Died in Judiciary

SB 68 is known as the campus carry bill. The only amendment to current legislation is that concealed carry would be allowed on college campuses.

The bill was introduced in August of last year. It was referred to four committees: Criminal Justice, Higher Education, Judiciary and Rules. It passed in Criminal Justice and Higher Education. The Criminal Justice committee voted 3-2 in favor and Higher Education voted 5-3 in favor. SB 68 was sent to Judiciary where it was never placed on the agenda.

Many groups and individuals have a stake in this debate. Top players include Senator Gaetz; Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R, District 40); the National Rifle Association; the Florida Sheriff’s Association and the League of Women Voters of Florida.

Senator Gaetz drafted or sponsored all the bills or amendments that allow concealed carry permit-holders to openly carry. The amendment in SB 612 was his work. SB 300 was also his work. When HB 163 came to the Senate, Gaetz sponsored it. Gaetz represents Bay, Holmes, Jackson, Washington, Walton and a portion of Okaloosa County. Gaetz is in favor of open carry.

Senator Diaz de la Portilla is the chair of the Judiciary committee. The Chairman repeatedly received these bills into his committee but chose not to place them on the agenda. Though these bills can be resurrected, it is a difficult process. Diaz de la Portilla is opposed to open carry and living proof that it is only in the Florida Senate that by ignoring a problem, you can make it go away.

The National Rifle Association is the driving force behind this legislation and is deeply in favor of open carry legislation in Florida.

The Florida Sheriff’s Association does not believe that the language of current bills properly addresses the situation. They have argued for broader allowances for concealed carry permit-holders, especially for the inadvertent display of a firearm. According to a press release, the Florida Sheriff’s Association has seen incidents like, for example, a shirt coming untucked and others being able to see a law-abiding concealed carry permit-holder’s weapon. In this example, the permit-holder could be charged criminally, as if he were brandishing the weapon threateningly. The Association believes that loopholes like this in the current laws do need to be addressed but that closing loopholes and broadening allowances for concealed carry permit-holders should fall short of legalizing open carry. They have openly opposed current legislation. However, the Florida Sheriff's Association has expressed a desire to work towards bills that “close the loopholes but balance public safety concerns.”

The League of Women Voters of Florida has also opposed current legislation. “We back the Florida Sheriff’s Association in their assessment of the legislation. We believe it sets a bad precedence and would have a negative impact on our state’s largest industry, tourism,” said  President Pamela Goodman in a statement to Greene Publishing, Inc.

The League called Senator Gaetz’s addition of the open carry legislation to SB 612 as a “Hail Mary pass for the NRA.” Senator Gaetz disagreed in a press release in which he spent much of his focus on Diaz de la Portilla. Gaetz wrote, “The Senator killed the bill by not allowing it to be presented and debated in his committee. I’m deeply disappointed. It is perfectly proper to vote against a bill. It reflects poorly on any chairman to fear the debate.

“To be clear, Diaz de la Portilla is technically within his rights as chairman to not hear the bill. Every chairman of every committee has the responsibility and authority to set his or her agenda. What is unfortunate in this case is that this bill was passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives and, in my view, would have passed the full Senate. […] Put simply, Diaz de la Portilla used his power as a committee chairman to deny senators and the public the opportunity even to discuss the issue of open carry and vote for or against the bill.”

So without debate or discussion, by the hand of a single senator, open carry has died on the Senate floor. Senator Gaetz says that the only hope that this bill will turn into a law is if it is reintroduced next year.

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