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Florida sheriffs worried over bill allowing permit holders to openly carry guns

TAMPA — Fast-forward to Gasparilla 2012.

Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee envisions gunslinging paradegoers, free to drink alcohol and openly display pistols.

Now picture Florida's beaches.

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats sees no reason why, starting this July, visitors couldn't pack their own heat under the sun.

On Wednesday, local sheriffs joined others statewide to voice trepidation over a bill in the Florida Legislature that would allow people with concealed weapons permits to openly carry guns.

Both the Senate and House versions of the bill passed their criminal justice committees this week. If enacted into law, it would take effect July 1.

Supporters say the bill is meant to protect permit holders whose guns are accidentally made visible. Marion Hammer, former president of the National Rifle Association, has testified that permit holders have been unfairly punished in cases where, for example, a strong wind blows a shirt up and exposes a gun.

The Senate bill is sponsored by Greg Evers, R-Baker, and the House's version is co-sponsored by eight Republicans.

Sheriffs across the Tampa Bay region say that the "accidental exposure" argument is ludicrous.

They're worried that criminals might steal exposed weapons and possibly use them against gun owners.

A visible weapon could provoke crimes of opportunity, and concealed weapon permit holders — unlike deputies — don't have to pass physical fitness tests, said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

Hillsborough deputies go through 40 hours of training to learn how to maintain control of their guns, Gee said, and each agency uses special holsters that make theft difficult.

Neither the gun retention training nor specific holsters would be required under the bill.

In phone interviews, each sheriff said he supports the Second Amendment. Judd said he's an advocate of the NRA.

"But at the end of the day, this is bad legislation and should not be passed," he said.

They're worried that deputies responding to a conflict won't know who to disarm if they see several people with guns.

Instead of sorting out victim from criminal, deputies will have to focus on disarming everyone for safety, several sheriffs said.

Coats testified at Monday's committee meeting in Tallahassee that he's worried an open-carry law would frighten tourists.

"I wouldn't want my family to be in that environment," he said Wednesday. "It's just intimidating and threatening."

The Florida Sheriffs Association brought up similar concerns in a position letter provided to the St. Petersburg Times.

"The image of citizens openly carrying firearms around in public places could have a negative impact on tourism and the state's economy," the letter states.

Gee said he's particularly worried about curious children getting hold of visible guns, or trouble-making teens who might try to take guns from permit holders in places like dark theaters.

"It's just not safe," Gee said. "If it's about protecting yourself, keep it concealed."

Coats also brought up his concern that visible guns might lead to unintentional profiling.

An example, Coats said: Deputies are called to a robbery scene and told to look for an armed white male. What happens if they see a white male near the scene who happens to be openly carrying a gun — but was not involved in the robbery? "It creates a challenge for law enforcement," Coats said.

In its original version, the Senate bill applied to concealed-weapons permit holders on college campuses and other school grounds, but it was amended in the face of wide opposition.

The bill would not make it legal to carry guns in places where they're currently prohibited, including courthouses, prisons and government meetings. It's still being debated in committees.

Times staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report.

Florida sheriffs worried over bill allowing permit holders to openly carry guns 03/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 11:16pm]
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