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Fighting Over Concealed Firearm Rules in Gun-Friendly Florida

February 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
A tough battle is being waged over gun laws and ways to address gun violence in Florida, a state known to have some of the least restrictive firearm laws in the country. Special correspondent Trimmel Gomes of Florida Public Radio looks at gun ownership in the Sunshine State.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to our weeklong focus on guns, violence and mental health concerns in the wake of the Connecticut shootings.

Tonight, special correspondent Trimmel Gomes from Florida Public Radio WFSU-FM looks at the increase in gun ownership in that political battleground state.

His report is part of the PBS “After Newtown” series.

TRIMMEL GOMES, WFSU: Florida is known for many things, its sandy beaches and warm weather, but the state’s nickname of being the Sunshine State is getting stiff competition by some who call it the “Gunshine State.”

CHARLIE STRICKLAND, Talon Range: Florida is very pro-gun.

TRIMMEL GOMES: Charlie Strickland is a sheriff’s lieutenant and part owner of the soon-to-be-built Talon Shooting Range and Training Facility.

CHARLIE STRICKLAND: We have a Republican governor, Republican legislature, and so we have — we sort of lead the country in a lot of the new gun laws, Castle Doctrine, stand your ground statutes, things like that. And, naturally, getting conceal carry permit is commonplace.

TRIMMEL GOMES: A carry and conceal permit allows a Florida resident to carry a hidden weapon, except in schools and a few other buildings.

CHARLIE STRICKLAND: Our background is teaching people to get conceal carry permits. We know why they are getting them. They’re getting them primarily so they can protect themselves. Women are being taught to twist a finger and stomp on a toe, but nothing really, truly equalizes a small petite woman with somebody who’s 6’3”, 230 pounds who’s angry except a firearm.

TRIMMEL GOMES: One woman who’s been making sure that equalizer is in place is the leader of the gun lobby in Florida, Marion Hammer. In 1987, Hammer received the first carry and conceal permit issued in Florida. She lobbied hard for Florida to be the first state to make it easier to get gun permits and later went on to be the first woman to be the head of the National Rifle Association.

MARION HAMMER, Former National Rifle Association President: Florida was the first state to pass a shall issue law, and basically what that means is that unless you are prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm, the state shall issue it, as long as you have no criminal record, no record of mental abuse or mental illness, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, just the standard prohibitors.

TRIMMEL GOMES: 25 years later, there’s another first. More than one million people have active concealed weapons permits. And like in the rest of the nation, gun sales here have spiked. Gun dealers in December reported daily sales that matched a month’s worth of business.

Gun owner Philip Vause likes his state’s liberal laws, but doesn’t want Florida to be known as the “Gunshine State.”

PHILIP VAUSE, Gun Owner: I think it’s an adultery to use that terminology. We are the Sunshine State. We are not a gun state. Let’s take one place, for instance. Let’s get off of Florida for a minute.

Illinois, Chicago, has the toughest gun laws in all 50 states. Where are most murders committed? Chicago, Ill., with the toughest gun control. I think you are slandering the name that I’m proud of. I have been here 77 years. And to me, it’s not a gun state. It’s a state that has guns and they are legal.

TRIMMEL GOMES: Overall, Florida has seen a 33 percent decline in gun violence since 2007, but roughly 70 percent of homicides were tied to guns. Nationally, violent crimes of all types have been declining since the 1990s, but two-thirds of all homicides in the U.S. are tied to guns.

Since a 1987 law giving the state jurisdiction over gun permitting, the process has been overseen by the state Agriculture Department, but because it is not a law enforcement agency, the department lacks access to the FBI crime database. There are an average of 10 arrests a day in the state of people who obtained weapons despite having a criminal record.

Florida also sells conceal and carry permits to people out of state. That has allowed some to skirt their local, more strict gun laws. Pennsylvania recently changed their laws after violent crimes were linked to those with Florida permits.

Barbara Petersen would like to see Florida laws change as well. She blames the gun lobby for preventing any attempts to restrict gun access or to allow oversight. She is the executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, which tracks open government issues in the state legislature, including the evolution of gun laws.

BARBARA PETERSEN, First Amendment Foundation: It’s not that we’re against legal gun ownership. We just want to know and allow those who need to know who has a permit and who doesn’t, who’s got the right for a conceal carry and who doesn’t. That’s all we’re asking.

We’re not trying to infringe on anybody’s right to own or bear arms. As long as they’re legally owned, that’s fine. But we should have the opportunity to oversee those agencies and hold them accountable.

TRIMMEL GOMES: She is fighting a tough battle in Florida, where the state legislature instead might liberalize the concealed weapon law to make it possible to carry guns in more locations. Many in the state also oppose President Barack Obama’s proposal calling for restoring a ban on military-style assault weapons.

PHILIP VAUSE: No, they don’t need to ban the assault weapon, because there is no assault weapon. What are you going to ban, hammers, screwdrivers, saws? It’s just the same thing. I don’t categorize an AK as an assault weapon, because I’m not going to assault with anybody.

You don’t take a race car driver and categorize him with a drunk driver. They both drive cars. So I don’t see the comparison at all.

TRIMMEL GOMES: Now with more than a million active permits, that means about one in 14 or seven percent of adult Floridians now have the right to carry a concealed firearm. While praised by gun advocates, those numbers are troubling to some law enforcement officers.

POLICE CHIEF WALTER MCNEIL, Quincy, Fla.: Obviously, it means that there are more opportunities in the community for guns to be in the hands of the bad guys.

TRIMMEL GOMES: Walter McNeil is chief of police for Quincy. It’s a town of nearly 7,000 residents west of Tallahassee with a violent crime rate higher than the national average.

McNeil, a former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, was part of a group of law enforcement officials that recently met with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss national changes to gun access.

WALTER MCNEIL: Those weapons oftentimes fall in the hands of bad folks in our community. And what that means is, is that there are more opportunities for police officers to come into contact with those carrying weapons. And that creates a degree of concern and a level of tactical operation for a police officer in terms of now how do I make sure that, first of all, this isn’t a bad guy that I’m dealing with, and that that weapon that he or she has now isn’t going to be used against me?

TRIMMEL GOMES: One hundred and sixty-five police officers were killed in the line of duty in the U.S. in 2011. That was the highest number on record and Florida saw the highest number of officers killed, 14, most of them by guns.

To help protect citizens and police, Chief McNeil argues there needs to be more background checks on anyone trying to get a gun.

WALTER MCNEIL: The issue of background checks to us is a no-brainer, that any persons, whether they purchase a weapon through a friend or family or at a gun show or go to a gun shop in person and purchase the weapon, at every one of those circumstances, there should be a background check done on that person. That, to us in law enforcement, seems to be a simple solution.

TRIMMEL GOMES: There’s another thing that worries police officers about all those guns, their use in Florida’s stand your ground law, a law that got national attention when it was used by George Zimmerman to defend the shooting of Trayvon Martin last year.

The law allows the use of deadly force if an individual has a reasonable fear of being killed or seriously injured.

WALTER MCNEIL: When the stand your ground law was first contemplated, the Florida police unanimously took a position that we believe it was wrongheaded and not the appropriate thing to do. I would submit to you today that, having seen what — the carnage, if you will, that has occurred on our streets, that we should move away from that — that legislation today.

TRIMMEL GOMES: Since the law was passed in 2005, the number of justifiable deaths has nearly tripled to an average of 35 a year. Trayvon Martin’s mother recently went to the legislature with a call to repeal the stand your ground law.

SYBRINA FULTON, Mother of Trayvon Martin: We need to get rid of this law. We need to do something seriously about this law. As a parent, I wouldn’t want you to stand in my shoes, because it is hard. It is difficult.

TRIMMEL GOMES: A bill has been introduced in the state legislature to repeal the law, but it is given little chance of passing. Both sides say there needs to be a sensible approach to tackling gun violence.

But in this gun-loving state, it’s hard to see any major changes to legislation on the horizon.