The National Rifle Association will seek to pass a bill legalizing the open carrying of firearms in Florida during the 2013 session of the state Legislature, renewing a crusade for expanded gun rights that faltered last year, a longtime lobbyist for the group said Wednesday.
Marion Hammer, executive director of the NRA's state lobbying organization, Unified Sportsmen of Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times that the envisioned legislation would make it legal for holders of concealed-weapons permits to carry exposed guns in public.
Hammer said the bill is necessary to protect such gun owners from harassment by police when they accidentally reveal concealed weapons in public. A 2011 compromise that tweaked existing regulations to remove penalties for those who unintentionally expose a gun has not been sufficient protection, she said. As a result, the NRA has reverted to its original goal of open carry for concealed-weapons permit holders.
"We are going to address the problem of law-abiding gun owners exercising their Second Amendment rights, because they're being harassed," Hammer said. "The goal of the new bill will be exactly as it was in 2011 — to protect law-abiding people who have a license to carry."
Hammer's announcement comes at a time when the subject of firearm restrictions is even more emotionally freighted than usual. In the past three weeks, troubled gunmen have carried out two of the worst shooting massacres in recent U.S. history, leaving a total of 18 people dead and 61 wounded at a movie theater in a Denver suburb and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
The 2013 bill is sure to attract national attention from both supporters and opponents of firearm regulations. Expanding open carry in states that don't allow it has become a cherished cause of gun-rights activists in recent years.
Dozens of states allow their residents to openly carry firearms, though many have restrictions on where it can be done or require licenses. Despite its generally permissive gun laws, Florida has not allowed its residents to sport pistols on their hips in plain sight since 1987, when the Legislature outlawed the practice. There's an exception for gun owners engaged in or traveling directly to or from hunting, fishing and camping trips.
A 2011 NRA-backed bill that would have legalized open carry for concealed-weapon license holders in Florida passed through committees in the state House and Senate. But it was severely curtailed after law enforcement officials, including Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee and former Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats, lined up against it. In the end, state gun laws were changed so that concealed-weapons permit holders would not be penalized if they "briefly" expose their guns accidentally.
Steve Casey of the Florida Sheriffs Association, which opposed the 2011 open-carry bill, said the organization would fight similar legislation if it comes up again. The association argues that open carry would pose a public-safety threat, creating opportunities for criminals to steal and use exposed guns and confusing law enforcement officers who respond to a call only to find that both perpetrators and victims of a crime are wielding weapons.
"I think we would still have the same concerns we had with that bill last year, if it's identical," Casey said. "We need to see it."
Hammer said the specific language of the new legislation has not yet been drafted. The NRA will decide which lawmakers to work with on advancing a new bill after the November elections, she said.
State Sen. Greg Evers, a Republican running for re-election in a Panhandle district, was the 2011 bill's main sponsor in the Senate. If he's still in Tallahassee next year, Evers said, he would enthusiastically support a new bill, based on ongoing allegations that police are harassing concealed-weapon licensees.
"Whether I carry the bill, or someone else carries the bill, I would still work to support the bill, because we've still got a problem," Evers said.
Sean Caranna, executive director of the gun-rights group Florida Carry, said he has tracked 77 complaints from bearers of concealed weapons who say they have been treated inappropriately by law enforcement officers since last year's open-carry bill ended in a stalemate.
He pointed to the case of Dale Norman, a 23-year-old Fort Pierce man charged with openly carrying a .38-caliber handgun on his hip, a misdemeanor, after a passer-by saw him on the street and called police in February. Norman, who had only obtained his concealed-carry license days earlier, claimed the edge of his shirt was caught beneath his holster, inadvertently displaying the weapon.
He was found guilty by a St. Lucie County jury in June. His defense lawyer, Ashley Minton of Fort Pierce, said his sentence is pending while the judge considers multiple motions to dismiss that she filed during the trial, based in part on constitutional challenges to Florida's open-carry ban.
She is also arguing that the state's exemption for a "brief" display of a concealed weapon is too vague to be enforced.
"It's kind of a mess," she said of the current law.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.