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House panel pulls trigger on open carry

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A House panel Tuesday morning advanced a bill to allow concealed weapons licensees to carry their guns openly in Florida.

Or as sponsor state Rep. Matt Gaetz put it, restore a right “granted not by government, but by God.”

Despite an admonishment from Chairman Carlos Trujillo to keep questions to the text of the bill itself and avoid “philosophical” discussion, the Federalist Papers, constitutional jurisprudence, and the very notion of civilization all shot through an hour-long debate on the measure, which saw testimony from half a dozen advocates and members of the public.

Ultimately the panel advanced the bill to allow to transmute all concealed weapons permits into permits to carry guns openly.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee approved Gaetz’s HB 163 mostly along party lines, with state Rep. Chris Latvala joining the panel’s three present Democrats in voting “No.”

Democratic state Rep. Randolph Bracy and Republican state Rep. Ross Spano brought up constitutional issues ranging from the state requirement that bills deal with a single subject to conflicts with property rights.

“If I own a private restaurant — a Chuck E. Cheese’s, for instance, lots of kids in there — would I have any right to under this bill to limit open carry in my facility?” asked Spano.

The concern was later echoed by lobbyist Gary Hunter with the pro-business Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Gaetz responded that anyone with a right to be on anyone’s private property — known under state law as an “invitee” of the property’s owner — must abide by the owner’s lawful wishes, which he said the bill would not infringe upon.

Debbie Harrison Rumberger, opposing the bill on behalf of the League of Women Voters, echoed concerns from law enforcement corners.

“It would make it more difficult for police to make arrests to unlicensed carrying,” said Rumberger, saying open carry — which is the law of the land in 45 other states — causes confusion regarding probable cause and, in a crisis situation, makes it more difficult for cops to tell the “good guys” from a violent perpetrator.

Eric Friday of the Fletcher & Phillips law firm and pro-Second Amendment group Florida Carry was more sanguine on the Gaetz proposal.

He said prohibitions against carrying guns in Florida in general dates back to days shortly after Reconstruction, when the reactionary leadership of the era sought to limit gun possession among “certain classes of people,” namely blacks.

Friday couched the thorny issue largely championed by conservatives as one bound up with Civil Rights.

“You’re here to unwind another Jim Crow law,” said Friday.

State Capitol stalwart Marion Hammer of Unified Sportsmen of Florida and the National Rifle Association said the bill is necessary to fix a glitch in the state’s concealed weapons regime, last updated in 2011.

Hammer said she supported the bill out of obligation to concealed weapons permit holders that have been arrested due to brief, unintentional exposure.

After her testimony state Rep. Charles Van Zant asked if the bill — “when we pass it” — would allow a Floridian to carry a weapon both openly and concealed at the the same time.

“If he or she wants to carry two guns, and carry one openly and one concealed, that’s freedom of choice,” Hammer responded.

Democratic state Rep. Dave Kerner, himself a former law enforcement office in Palm Beach County, spoke stridently against the bill.

“It’s striking to me that we can have a conversation about open carry and not once does the issue of weapon retention come up,” said Kerner. “If you think for a second that because you have a concealed weapons permit, you are capable of retaining your weapon in a fight, you are wrong.”

“The right to carry a weapon irresponsibly is not constitutionally protected,” Kerner added.

The bill moves on next to the House Justice Appropriations panel before meeting the Judiciary Committee.

The Senate companion bill sponsored by Gaetz’s father, former Senate President Don Gaetz, who joined him this morning for a roll-out of the joint bills, has not yet been referred to committee.

Gaetz announced Tuesday afternoon he will hold an “interactive townhall meeting” on a handful of issues, among them his efforts to bring open carry to Florida.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at

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