TALLAHASSEE — Evacuations caused by hurricanes, toxic spills and riots could be grounds for people to conceal guns in public without a permit, according to a bill backed by the National Rifle Association that passed the Florida House 80-36 on Friday.
"The bells of liberty are surely ringing throughout Florida today," said Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, the bill sponsor. "We are making sure that no Floridian in lawful possession of a firearm must leave it behind while evacuating in an officially declared state of emergency."
HB 209 passed with six Democrats voting for it, including Rep. Amanda Murphy of New Port Richey and Rep. Carl Zimmermann of Palm Harbor, despite objections from his sheriff.
"The bill is crazy, it's absurd," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Gualtieri and the Florida Sheriffs Association lobbied against the bill, calling it too vague. There is no way to know for how long, or in how large a geographic area, a gun owner might qualify to conceal a weapon after an evacuation order.
Also, the bill applies to those who are "in lawful possession" of guns. That's not the same as a gun owner, and could apply to adult children or spouses of gun owners with clean criminal records who are found carrying guns.
A companion bill, SB 296, is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and awaits a hearing in the Appropriations Committee before a floor vote.
Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, had supported the bill but now opposes it because of its vagueness.
"At what point do we have control over knowing when someone is no longer evacuating?" asked Dean, a former sheriff of Citrus County. "In most of my experience, officers are there to help you in an emergency. I'm not really sure what advantage you have by sticking a gun in your belt."
Rep. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, said it makes the job of law enforcement too risky during emergencies.
"You are introducing concealed firearms in an environment that is already teeming with tension," said Torres, a former New York City transit cop. "If this bill passes, I hope that tragedy is not a byproduct of our decision here today, and if it is, I hope we are ready to accept responsibility."
But gun-rights advocates like Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, said concerns were overblown.
"Every single time we've made changes to protect the Second Amendment rights of people, we hear about this wild, wild West," Smith said. "It's going to be more dangerous. Shootings everywhere. And yet, we have one of the lowest rates of crime we've ever been at."
Another NRA-backed bill, HB 523, was approved by a wider margin, 94-22, minutes later. It authorizes county tax collectors to accept applications for licenses to carry concealed weapons and firearms in an effort to make the permits more accessible.
"This bill is to ensure that Floridians do not have to wait six months to drive multiple hours to have their concealed weapons permit, at the time perhaps a natural disaster occurs," said its sponsor, Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.