TALLAHASSEE — A bill that allows legal gun owners to conceal their weapons without a permit during mandatory evacuations continued to gain support in the Senate Tuesday despite concerns from law enforcement.
The Community Affairs Committee voted 8-1 to pass SB 296, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, that would remove any criminal penalties for those found carrying weapons in public without a permit during evacuations ordered by the governor.
Carrying a concealed firearm without a permit is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to a five years in prison. That's an undue burden on gun owners, said Marion Hammer, the former national president of the National Rifle Association who spoke in support of the bill, along with gun rights group Florida Carry. For them, the bill wasn't just about defending the Second Amendment; it's also a protection for residents left to fend for themselves during a crisis such as a hurricane.
"When an (evacuation) order is given, it sends the message that you're on your own," said Hammer. "Sheriff's deputies aren't going to be there to help you, the National Guard's not going to be there to help you. You've got to take your family and get out. You're responsible for their safety. Taking your firearms with you is not only your right, it's your responsibility."
The notion of guns as a duty — not just a right — is a call to arms that has found receptive ears after a spate of high-profile shootings. In February, South Carolina made it legal to carry concealed weapons in bars. In Georgia, the Legislature passed a bill last month that would allow people to carry guns into bars and public areas of airports while allowing felons to claim the "stand your ground" defense. And in Tennessee on Tuesday, senators voted to let gun owners carry weapons openly without a permit.
In Florida, a bill that expands the state's "stand your ground" law to shield from prosecution those who fire warning shots awaits Gov. Rick Scott's signature. Bills arming teachers and principals are advancing as well. Meanwhile, the House companion to Brandes' concealed weapons bill has already passed a committee and awaits a floor vote.
But the Florida Sheriff's Association opposes the bill, claiming it would be difficult to enforce. The bill only says a permit isn't needed while the gun owner is in the act of complying with the evacuation order, which is too vague, said John Rutherford, the sheriff of Duval County.
"What does that mean?" Rutherford said. "When I get to my brother-in-law's house three counties away and I stay there four days, am I still complying because I'm evacuated? I don't want good people getting arrested because they don't know what 'in the act of complying' means, and an officer doesn't know that it means. So let's define that."
Rutherford supports defining a time period and a geographic area (perhaps a radius of 50 miles from home) that would apply to the evacuation.
But the bill, which has one more committee stop, should be left vague, Brandes said after the vote Tuesday. "We need to offer broad flexibility when it comes to your right to defend yourself," he said.
He originally wanted to make the bill even broader, by including local emergencies such as riots. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, asked if that might include events like the 1996 racial disturbances in St. Petersburg. "If I can think of a situation that's as volatile as a riot, like we had in south St. Petersburg," Latvala said, "that's not a time when you want to allow people willy-nilly to have guns. … To relax the standards of carrying guns in vehicles during riots is the wrong thing to do."
That provision was removed in an amendment, and Latvala voted for the bill. But it remains in the House version, so it could come back and win approval by senators.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com.