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Gun licenses soar in Fla.

Maj. Norm Belson conducts a concealed weapon training class at Knight Shooting Sports, a shooting range in Clearwater. Students in his class mentioned “protection” when asked why they signed up.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Maj. Norm Belson conducts a concealed weapon training class at Knight Shooting Sports, a shooting range in Clearwater. Students in his class mentioned “protection” when asked why they signed up.

The number of Floridians with permission to pack heat has jumped nearly 50 percent in three years.

In 2005, one year before the state Legislature's decision to provide anonymity to people holding concealed weapons licenses, there were 347,350 active permits statewide.

Now, that number has swelled to about 520,000.

Some states ask applicants why they want a concealed weapons license. Florida isn't one of them. That makes it almost impossible to say who is getting licensed and why.

But recent changes to the state's gun laws by the Republican-led Legislature suggest Florida is an attractive place to own a gun and privately tuck it away.

To supporters of gun rights, that's good news.

"People value privacy," said Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. "If they own a firearm for their protection, hunting or sport shooting or in some other legal manner, it's nobody's business."

To opponents, that makes Florida a 21st century Wild West. The increased permits mean one out of about every 35 Floridians has the right to conceal a gun.

"You're talking about people carrying loaded, hidden handguns," said Brian Malte, director of state legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. "Even more frightening is if a law enforcement officer is called to the scene, they have to make a split-second decision on who the perpetrator is. There's no time to say, 'Stop shooting,' and check for permits."

The record number of active licenses comes as the financial and legal incentives for licenses have expanded.

This year the Legislature stretched the validity of a license from five years to seven with no price increase. Reciprocity, which affords Florida license holders protection elsewhere, now extends to 33 other states.

Experts also point to changes in the state's gun laws as a reason for the spike. They include a 2005 law that expanded individuals' right to defend themselves even if they're away from home and a 2008 law that allows employees with concealed weapons to take guns to work and keep them locked in cars.

Legally speaking, having a license protects against the "hundreds of little pitfalls" of not having one, said Jon Gutmacher, an Orlando attorney and expert on the state's gun laws.

"It takes the worry out," he said.

'Means of defense'

But worrying about crime and disaster, not legalities, ranks among the top reasons people want to be armed, Gutmacher said.

"When people are worried, the more they're going to go out and get a concealed weapons permit because they figure it's their only means of defense," he said.

One analyst in the state's licensing agency said he noticed a surge in applicants after years with hurricanes.

To get the license requires fingerprints, a color photograph and a background check showing you haven't been found guilty of a felony crime or misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. Applicants must also pay a fee up to $85 and successfully complete a concealed weapons class, like the ones held by Maj. Norm Belson at a Clearwater shooting range.

Students in his class last week mentioned "protection" when asked why they signed up.

"I just want to be able to protect myself," explained a Lutz mother of two who spoke on the condition of anonymity at the behest of her instructor. One of her relatives was the victim of a shooting.

"I want to be able to shoot back," she said.

Opponents of the state's approach to concealed weapons say Florida's pre-1987 system was a better, safer fit. It was known as the "may issue" system because the law said local authorities may issue licenses to applicants. Under that framework, locals could decide the number of concealed weapons in their area, whether a spacious rural countryside or a crowded city.

Current laws don't make that distinction.

"People are beginning to understand what they can do with that gun," said Arthur Hayhoe, president of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a longtime opponent of the state's gun laws. "My advice is don't trifle with Floridians."

Gun licenses soar in Fla. 09/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2008 12:30pm]
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