TALLAHASSEE — Floridians in record numbers want to carry concealed weapons, a trend linked to a surge in crime, economic anxiety and fears of stricter gun laws.
And now the state is buried under a backlog of 95,000 applications for concealed weapons permits, and it needs to hire a lot more people to handle the paperwork. A legislative panel Wednesday gave Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson the okay to spend $3.9 million more so he can hire 61 temporary workers.
"Once the economy gets bad, crime always goes up," said Bronson, a certified police officer. "People get desperate whenever things are not going the way they feel like they should be going, and they'll do things they normally wouldn't do."
The state reported a surge in applications in November after the election of President Obama, who has advocated stricter gun control laws but also campaigned as a defender of Second Amendment rights.
Florida received 75,679 first-time concealed weapons permit applications in 2007 and 86,269 in 2008, in addition to tens of thousands of renewal forms. About 541,000 Floridians are permitted to carry concealed weapons.
Nationwide, retailers report a surge in sales of firearms in recent months. Some Florida stores have run out of ammunition.
Anthony Burriesci, 46, spent $100 on ammunition Wednesday for his monthly trip to a shooting range. The Carrollwood man, who owns four guns, recently renewed his concealed weapons permit because of fears that the laws will change and he wants to protect himself and his family. The Public Storage manager also delivers pizzas part time and said drivers are often the target of robberies.
"The prices of ammunition have already gone up. And I'm a National Rifle Association member and I'm afraid under this new administration it's going to be even harder to get ammunition," he said.
After being carjacked twice in New Jersey, auto body mechanic Edwin Rivera said he is looking into getting a permit. He wants to feel safer as he rides around his Town 'N Country neighborhood in his car.
"I have a family and six children to worry about," the 26-year-old said. "I'm only getting the permit to protect them."
As applications for gun permits stack up, the state has reported a spike in phone calls from impatient applicants, and at least 140 large tubs in a Tallahassee office building are filled with unprocessed applications.
By law, the state must process permit applications within 90 days or they are automatically approved. A permit is valid for seven years and costs $117, which includes a $44 fee for state and federal background checks and a set of fingerprints. The money to hire new employees comes from fees paid by applicants, not from general tax dollars.
Adding to the backlog of applications is that the state gives a priority to renewal forms, to avoid cases of gun owners unknowingly having their permits expire or to catch cases in which permit holders have broken the law.
Asked about the surge in gun permit applications, Gov. Charlie Crist said: "I'm pro-gun. I think people ought to have the right to protect themselves, and if people want to get new certificates, that's their constitutional right. … If they use those instruments responsibly and prudently and within the bounds of the law, everything should be fine."
The state senator in Crist's hometown of St. Petersburg disagreed. "More guns is never a good thing, especially in an urban area," said Sen. Charlie Justice, a Democrat. "There are very few areas of our city that have not been touched by gun violence."
Bronson said it's a positive thing that people would seek to legally own a concealed weapon. "That's the reason why people get concealed weapons, so that if they are threatened with their life they can defend themselves and their family and their property. And this is the right way to do it."
Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell, Miami Herald political writer Beth Reinhard and Times/Herald researcher Lynette Norris contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.