TALLAHASSEE — Under a bill backed by the National Rifle Association and other gun groups, riots could be the newest safe haven for those carrying firearms without a permit.
HB 209, which is expected to be voted on Friday by the Florida House, would allow people with clean criminal backgrounds to conceal firearms without a permit during emergencies — including riots and civil unrest like the 1996 racial disturbances that rocked St. Petersburg — declared by the governor or local officials.
"To allow people to go into a riot while concealing a gun without a permit is the definition of insanity," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. "The bill is crazy. It's absurd."
Supporters of the bill say it's intended to give gun owners the opportunity to protect their property while they are evacuating from a disaster or crisis, such as hurricanes, floods or worse.
"We tell people to be prepared during hurricane season to take care of yourself for three days," Florida Carry general counsel Eric Friday said earlier this month. "That means food, water, and also the ability to protect yourself because emergency services aren't available."
Those concealing a firearm without a permit can be punished with up to five years in prison for the third-degree felony. Under the proposed legislation, that penalty could be waived during emergencies.
Gualtieri and the Florida Sheriffs Association have been lobbying for weeks to make changes, pitting them against the sponsor of the Senate bill, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. That's SB 296.
A key objection is that it's not clear in the legislation when it's okay not to have a permit for the concealed firearm. Both bills say no permit is needed for those "in the act of complying with a mandatory evacuation order during a declared state of emergency."
If someone flees a hurricane and travels several counties over, either to a hotel or relative's house, at what point are they still evacuating? For how long are they able to claim they are evacuating?
On Wednesday, the House sponsor, Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, couldn't provide specifics to the doubters during House debate on the bill.
"I have (the gun) on my body because I'm allowed to do it under this new law, and I get to a (hurricane) shelter," Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, asked Fitzenhagen. "What happens to the firearm then?"
"The law does not allow you to bring that into a shelter," Fitzenhagen replied. "You would be able to put it somewhere else, in another person's car perhaps, or a container."
The Florida Sheriffs Association thinks the bill is too vague and would lead to false arrests and clashes with police. Brandes and Fitzenhagen say too much specificity would defeat the purpose of the bill.
"If you refine it too much, then you don't make it effective for giving people the opportunity to store their guns safely," she said.
For Gualtieri and the Florida Sheriffs Association, the bills were made considerably worse in late March and early April when they were amended so that local authorities, not just the governor, could declare an emergency.
Under that added provision, riots qualified as emergencies in which residents could conceal guns without permits.
"We were trying to work with them, but they changed the purpose of the bill," Gualtieri said. "Now you don't have to be leaving an area. You could be coming to it, you could be part of the problem, exacerbating it."
On Tuesday, the Senate's Community Affairs Committee agreed, stripping out the local emergency provision that included riots.
But it remains in the House bill, where it will stay, said Fitzenhagen.
"I believe there are scenarios in which local governments should have the authority to call a state of emergency," Fitzenhagen said Wednesday. "I'm not contemplating them calling a state of emergency for riots and then they grab their handguns and go out there into the riot."
But the way the bill is written, it's too confusing for law enforcement officers and gun owners alike, Gualtieri said.
"It would give me pause, as sheriff, in declaring a state of emergency," he said. "If I know cops would have to deal with God knows what, I now have to worry about making a situation worse."