Law enforcement officials around Tampa Bay oppose legislation that would allow people with concealed weapons permits to openly carry firearms.
The officials shudder at the thought of guns on hips of alcohol-fueled revelers at St. Petersburg's First Friday, spring breakers on Pinellas County beaches and partiers on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City. They worry that deputies responding to a conflict won't know criminal from victim. They worry about children getting hold of guns and criminals stealing them.
The Tampa Bay Times contacted 21 law enforcement leaders in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties to ask their stance on a bill allowing open carry proposed for the 2016 state legislative session. Of the dozen who responded, 10 are opposed to the idea. They include the sheriffs in Pinellas and Hillsborough and police chiefs in cities from Brooksville to St. Petersburg.
"Officers have a tough enough job with the way the world is now," said Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter. "This is just one more element of danger I'd prefer my men and women not have to deal with."
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Sponsored by the Republican father-son duo of Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, the bill would allow permit holders to carry firearms in "any place that a person has the right to be, subject only to exceptionally and narrowly tailored restrictions" that aren't specified.
Matt Gaetz has said the bill "restores and vindicates" Second Amendment rights and promotes public safety in a state with 1.5 million permit holders. The National Rifle Association and other supporters argue the measure would ensure permit holders are not prosecuted if they inadvertently show their weapon. Forty-five other states have some sort of open carry law.
Still, the bill proposed for Florida has met stiff resistance from law enforcement groups including the Florida Fraternal Order of Police and the Florida Sheriffs Association, which held a blind vote last month. Of the state's 67 sheriffs, 47 opposed the measure and 10 supported it. The rest abstained or couldn't be contacted.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the association's legislative committee chairman, said many sheriffs oppose any form of open carry law while others have problems with the way the Gaetz bill is written.
Gualtieri and Hillsborough County Sheriff Gee are in the former camp.
Gualtieri said he supports making existing law stronger to ensure those who accidentally show their concealed weapon can't be prosecuted, but open carry isn't the solution.
"Look at spring break up and down the beach communities," said Gualtieri, whose agency contracts with 13 Pinellas cities to provide law enforcement. "It would be a great concern to have people with firearms stuck in their bathing suits walking up and down Gulf Boulevard."
He said it's "intellectually dishonest" to cite open carry laws in other states because there are so many variations in the laws and demographics. In Pennsylvania, cities can opt out of its open carry law and some, including Philadelphia, do so. Florida cities could not opt out of a state gun law.
Gee said through a spokesman his stance hasn't changed from the last time an open carry bill was proposed four years ago.
"It's just not safe," he told the Times in 2011. "If it's about protecting yourself, keep it concealed."
Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis also voted no in the sheriff association poll but said he would reconsider his stance if certain concerns are addressed.
One of the biggest: The original version of the bill did not expressly state that officers can ask to see a carry permit, and that anyone who tries to "infringe" on such a right would face a $5,000 civil penalty. Government organizations such as a police department could be fined $100,000.
The Senate version was amended last week to include an explicit reference to an existing statute that gives law enforcement the ability to ask for a permit, which Gualtieri said is "a step in the right direction."
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco supports open carry, agreeing with sheriff counterparts who say openly carrying a weapon will make people safer.
"If you look like you're prepared for the fight, people aren't going to fight you," he said.
Opponents of the new law turn that rationale on its head, arguing that law-abiding open carriers risk being targeted by criminals who see them as a threat.
Officials also worry about officers who run into criminals wearing an exposed gun. Drawing a concealed weapon usually requires some kind of movement that gives an officer time to react.
"We always train to watch a person's hands," said St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway, who opposes open carry. "Would we have to train officers to be faster than the other person?"
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Even some supporters see ways to improve the bill.
Based on feedback from agencies in other states, Nocco sent a letter to NRA board member Marion Hammer suggesting a provision to prohibit exposed guns in places that serve alcohol such as bars and other "adult oriented businesses." He also recommended a holster requirement so guns aren't easily grabbed by children or criminals.
Don Gaetz said he is open to feedback from law enforcement but so far hasn't found evidence in other states to support fears about higher crime and accidents. Matt Gaetz, who did not return a message, has said the violent crime rate is 23 percent lower in states that allow open carry. PolitiFact Florida confirmed the number was accurate in 2012 but quoted experts who say there's no way the single data point can provide clues as to the effects of open carry laws.
The elder Gaetz conceded as much.
"I don't believe I can make the claim that open carry caused a decrease in violent crime, but the fact that there is more violent crime in states that prohibit it means it will be very difficult to prove the opposite," he said.
Gualtieri said the sheriffs association will lobby against the bill, and he is reaching out personally to the Tampa Bay legislative delegation. Tampa police Chief Eric Ward, through a spokesman, hinted at his stance by referring the Times to a "powerful joint statement" on the bill expected next week from the Florida Police Chiefs Association.
Other chiefs were less opaque.
"I think the politicians here are always doing the knee jerk and trying to fix things that aren't broken," said Brooksville police Chief George Turner. "Florida's gun laws are working the way they are."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.