TALLAHASSEE — Sometime next week in Florida, somebody will become the state's 1 millionth holder of a concealed weapons permit, solidifying the state's No. 1 standing in the nation in that category.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam deemed that was worthy of a news conference Wednesday, flanked by U.S. and state flags.
"I've been asked about our licensing responsibilities as much as any other topic," Putnam said when asked why he touted the 1 million mark.
No doubt, it proves the popularity of a program begun in 1987 at the urging of the NRA, when Florida became the first state to adopt a permit process that at the time was very lenient.
No longer did applicants need to belong to certain professions to own a concealed handgun permit. They had to meet a few requirements, such as being at least 21, a U.S. citizen not to have committed a felony.
Under the leadership of its longtime Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, who got the first permit, the NRA has pushed to remove obstacles in getting them. In 1992, for instance, lawmakers removed a requirement that permit holders had to live in Florida.
The easing of barriers didn't come only through legislation. Policies in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which began oversight of the program in 2003, have made it easier and faster.
Putnam said it takes applicants about 35 days to get approved now. Before he took office in 2011, it took about 12 weeks.
Since the program was created 25 years ago, only 34,759 applications have been rejected, a rate of 0.015 percent. Voters casting their ballots by absentee or provisional ballots got rejected at a higher rate.
Putnam called the low rejection rate proof of a sound application process, which he said is so rigorous that it discourages those who wouldn't be eligible.
But earlier this year, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that for people whose fingerprints were illegible, the agency did not complete background checks (now it does).
And because the state agriculture office is not a law enforcement agency, it lacks access to the FBI crime database. That means the state approves applications despite not reviewing data on drug addicts, people with mental health issues, military personnel with dishonorable discharges and undocumented workers.
Putnam said "we have closed the gap" when asked if the department was now reviewing the FBI data.
Grea Bevis, the department's director of licensing, said after the news conference that the agency still does not have access to the FBI information.
"The gap is not completely shut yet," Bevis said.
He said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is allowed to look at the data and will work with Putnam's agency to make sure that happens early next year.
FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey said his agency processed more background checks for firearms on the Black Friday shopping day after Thanksgiving than on any single day in the agency's history.
Putnam did not mention permit holders such as George Zimmerman, who was arrested in the Feb. 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin, or Michael Dunn, who was arrested for the Nov. 23 shooting of Jordan Davis, a Jacksonville teen. He stressed the state's low revocation rate of 0.3 percent and defended a 2006 law that keeps secret the names of permit holders.
"The Legislature made the decision to protect gun owners and we should respect that," Putnam said.
One person who cheered the upcoming milestone was the NRA's Hammer.
"It's great news," she said. "When the number of license holders increase, crime decreases. We have a record number of license holders now, and crime is the lowest it's been in 40 years."
Gun control groups said there's nothing to celebrate.
"Florida's concealed weapons permitting allowed George Zimmerman to carry a concealed weapon in public, and he had a history of violence," said Brian Malte, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "If more guns made us a safer society, then we'd be the safest society on earth. We're not. We're the most lethal."
Contact Michael Van Sickler at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]