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Pinellas sheriff candidates split on open carry of guns

Notorious for lax gun laws, Florida is more stringent than other parts of the country when it comes to one area of firearms regulation.

For 25 years, the "Gunshine State" has not allowed its residents to carry openly displayed weapons in public.

Activists who oppose gun control want to change that. How successful they are could depend, in part, on the results of next week's Republican primary election for the office of Pinellas County sheriff.

In the final weeks of intense campaigning by the two well-known and well-funded GOP contenders in the race, one of the most significant policy differences between them has gone mostly unmentioned.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri opposes an "open-carry" law that would enable Floridians to walk the streets with pistols on their hips.

Former Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice, his challenger, does not, and has signaled to the state's powerful gun lobby that it will meet no resistance from him if it seeks to push forward open-carry legislation.

Either candidate's stance could be consequential, since the state's elected sheriffs, including former Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats, were instrumental in defeating an open-carry bill the Florida Legislature considered last year.

"There are many states that have the open-carry law, and they don't have the problems that critics talk about," Rice said. "I wouldn't support it or oppose it."

Gualtieri, by contrast, balks at the vision of this densely populated county that an open-carry law portends.

"I don't think that in a county of a million people, in a civilized society, we need to be walking down the aisle at Publix at 6 p.m. on a Sunday and see three kids with guns on their hips," he said. "This isn't the Wild West."

The winner of the Aug. 14 primary will go on to face Democrat Scott Swope and write-in candidate Greg Pound on Nov. 6. A Republican has won the sheriff's race in every election since 1980, and both Gualtieri and Rice have raised far more money than their general election opponents.

The two Republicans each say they're enthusiastic supporters of gun rights, and to an extent, their disagreement reflects a national debate. Over the past several years, the carrying of exposed firearms has opened a rift among Second Amendment supporters.

Open carry is legal in many states, with the most permissive regulations in the South and Mountain West. Advocates say the public display of guns is a deterrent to crime.

"Criminals are evil. They're not stupid," said Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. "They realize, 'Jeesh, I better make sure my victims aren't armed.' That slows them down."

But there has been little research focused on the consequences of open gun-bearing, and researchers disagree on the implications of more general studies on gun possession. A 2011 study by Stanford Law School professor John Donohue found that the clearest impact on crime rates of expanded "right-to-carry" laws was an increase in aggravated assaults.

Open carry was outlawed in Florida in 1987, when the state updated its regulations on concealed-weapons permits. A 2011 bill seeking to revive it failed after the Florida Sheriffs Association, Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and Florida Retail Federation lined up in opposition.

Their objections ranged from the law's public safety implications — poorly trained gun owners could have their weapons ripped from their holsters and turned against them, they argued, and law enforcement officers arriving at crime scenes could have trouble distinguishing gun-bearing victims from gun-bearing criminals — to negative effects on tourism.

"We feel that sheriffs have an obligation as the chief law enforcement officer in their county to not be silent on issues that affect public safety," said Florida Sheriffs Association Executive Director Steve Casey, "regardless of how that sits with a particular special-interest group."

The special-interest group in question has not made a secret of its hard feelings over the episode.

The National Rifle Association and its state-level lobbying arm, the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, recently sent a questionnaire to all sheriff candidates in the state. The strident tone of the survey strongly hinted at what answers the groups favored, referring to "anti-gun sheriffs" committing "persecution" and "harassment" of gun owners.

Marion Hammer, the longtime NRA lobbyist who issued the questionnaire, could not be reached for comment.

No open-carry bills are pending in Tallahassee. Still, the NRA survey asked whether candidates support, in principle, the open display of firearms by concealed-weapons permit holders.

Gualtieri, who provided his answers to the questionnaire to the Tampa Bay Times, said he does not. He attached a one-page explanation of his position, stating that he would not seek to punish concealed-weapons carriers who accidentally displayed their firearms.

Rice declined to share his responses with the Times, saying he had not kept them after he returned the completed questionnaire to the NRA. However, he said he had provided what he believed were the NRA's desired responses to the survey's 14 yes-or-no questions. Last month, Hammer sent Rice a letter announcing that he would receive the NRA endorsement and expressing the group's satisfaction with his stated views on gun laws.

"I answered every question the way they would have wanted," Rice said.

That included an affirmative response on the open-carry question, he acknowledged. But Rice said this week that his real position on the issue is more nuanced than his NRA survey indicated.

He meant that he would think about supporting an open-carry law if he finds that police officers are harassing those lawfully bearing concealed guns, he said.

"The qualified answer is yes, but that doesn't mean I openly support open carry," Rice said. "If there is harassment, I would consider an open-carry law."

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157.

Pinellas sheriff candidates split on open carry of guns 08/07/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 9:55pm]

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