Wednesday, June 20, 2018
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Why does Florida’s agriculture department handle concealed gun permits? The NRA wants it to.

If it seems unusual for Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to handle concealed weapons permits, that's because it is unusual – nearly every other state gives the job to police or courts.

But Florida's Agriculture Commissioner has the job because the National Rifle Association wants him to have the job.

In yet another testament to its power in Tallahassee, the NRA had lawmakers quietly move the Division of Licensing, which handles the concealed weapons permit program, from the Florida Department of State to the state's Department of Agriculture in 2002, so that the program was answerable to an elected official.

"What we did is we helped write the bill and then amended it onto somebody else's bill," Marion Hammer, the NRA's chief lobbyist in Florida, said Monday. "It was just me. Just NRA. Just gun owners wanting to be sure the program was protected."

One result is that there is a back and forth process between the Department of Agriculture and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which processes certain background checks for concealed licenses and then reports the information back to the agriculture department.

A problem with one of the background check got attention last week, when the Times reported that for more than a year, employees failed to check the results of a federal check on things like drug and mental illness histories, resulting in nearly 300 ineligible people being issued licenses.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican candidate for governor who has described himself as a "proud NRA sellout," said his office took "immediate action" to fix the problem after it was discovered, more than a year later.

But it's not the only time that the state's Division of Licensing has had problems with critical background checks because its employees – and not law enforcement – are responsible for issuing permits.

RELATED COVERAGE: Adam Putnam's office stopped reviewing concealed weapons background checks for a year because it couldn't log in

In 2000, the division was caught not checking a state database of domestic violence abusers because state police couldn't share the database with them.

And in 2012, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that the licensing division wasn't checking applicants against a critical FBI database. The Agriculture Department wasn't allowed to check the database because it wasn't a law enforcement agency.

That the Department of Agriculture, and not police, would be responsible for issuing the permits has been difficult for people to comprehend.

"When I first learned about this, it's one of my most mind-boggling things that I keep coming back to," said Robin Lloyd, director of government affairs for Giffords, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit that advocates for tougher gun laws. "It makes no sense whatsoever."

The organization identified just three other states – Georgia, Delaware and Michigan – where someone other than police issue concealed carry permits. But in Georgia and Delaware, the courts issue the permits, and in Michigan, county clerks have the job. No state has a central office unrelated to law enforcement, like Florida's Department of Agriculture, issue the permits, according to Giffords.

The history of Florida's unusual process is a testament to the influence of the state's gun lobby.

Before 1987, cities and counties were able to set their own gun ordinances, and they varied wildly.

To get a permit to carry a concealed weapon in Broward County, for example, you had to pay a $500 fee, be interviewed by people ranging from a psychologist to county officials, and show that you had a dangerous job or had threats to your life and needed to carry a gun. Fewer than 40 people had permits.

By contrast, more than 10,000 people had permits in Duval County, where the restrictions were looser.

To Hammer and the NRA, the varying ordinances were more than just a nuisance to gun owners, who couldn't travel from county to county without potentially breaking a law. They were also a threat to gun rights, and she set out to do away with them.

In 1985, the Democratic-dominated Legislature passed a bill that would have created a concealed weapons permit process under the Department of State, but then-Gov. Bob Graham vetoed it, believing that locals should be able to set stricter ordinances.

Gun advocates were successful two years later, when then-Gov. Bob Martinez signed a bill that not only standardized concealed carry permits, but abolished the ability for cities and counties to set their own gun laws.

Hammer, the architect of the bill, called it "a great victory for the people of Florida who have been victimized."

"Criminals are going to think twice before they attack innocent citizens," she told the Associated Press after the bill was signed.

The Department of State handled permitting until 2002, when the Secretary of State, an elected position, was turned into an appointed position. Hammer said on Monday that she wanted concealed weapon licenses moved under an elected official answerable to the public, so she pushed lawmakers to transfer the program to the Division of Licensing to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Then-Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson confirmed that's how it went down.

"The idea was that there were a number of people who wanted the oversight of concealed weapons permits to be under an elected statewide official," Bronson said on Monday.

Bronson said that when lawmakers came to him looking for a new home for the Division of Licensing, he wasn't opposed. The department licenses security guards and private investigators, and he said other parts of the Agriculture Department are sworn law enforcement.

"It meshed together pretty well," he said.

The change was barely noticed by the public or the press, if it was noticed at all. Hammer said no other interest groups were asking to move the Division of Licensing. It passed unanimously and was signed into law by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

Hammer explained the rationale for the move this way in an email:

"You should never want a program that impacts Second Amendment (constitutional) rights so profoundly to be under an agency led by an official who is not directly answerable to the people at the ballot box," Hammer wrote on Monday. "It is most inappropriate for (the Florida Department of Law Enforcement) or any other law enforcement agency to handle a licensing program, especially one that licenses firearms owners to carry firearms."

Today, applicants who want to carry a concealed weapon have to apply to the Department of Agriculture. But because those employees can't access federal background checks, the checks are done by FDLE.

That appears to have been the source of last year's breakdown that allowed hundreds of ineligible applicants to get permits. FDLE did the background checks, but an employee with the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Licensing Services did not log in and retrieve the results. The employee, who was previously working in the mail room and questioned why she had to deal with the database, said she couldn't log in to the system.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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