Gun permits in Florida: A growth industry

George Zimmerman is part of a large and growing class in Florida: He holds a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

Or he did until last week, when he was charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford.

A gun permit in Florida is suspended when the holder is charged with a felony. If Zimmerman is acquitted, he'll get his gun permit back.

Through March, 919,831 people held permits to carry a concealed weapon in Florida, or roughly one of every 15 adults in the state. (More than 106,000 permit holders live in other states.)

Four out of five are men. Most are over age 50.

Miami-Dade, the state's biggest county, has the most permit holders, more than 82,000. Broward is second with 72,000.

Hillsborough has the fourth-highest with nearly 46,000; Pinellas ranks No. 7 with more than 36,000.

Requests for permits have escalated in recent years. At the current pace, the number of permit holders will surpass 1 million in the next few months.

The Legislature puts Florida's gun licensing program under the control of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the agency that ensures the safety of fruits and vegetables.

The agency reports that February and March were the two busiest months on record for gun permits, with 53,835 in February and 52,712 in March (those totals include new permits and renewals).

The February number was more than 10,000 higher than the same month in 2011, and nearly twice as high as 2010.

"I don't know the answer to why the last two months have seen the highest numbers," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam says. "There's any number of things."

Putnam cites familiar theories such as economic uncertainty, fears of stricter gun control or worries of rising crime, though the violent crime rate in Florida has been declining for several years.

A permit is valid for seven years, and lawmakers just lowered the price by $5. It's $70 for a new license, $60 for renewal.

Putnam's agency now has eight sites for people to renew permits. The latest opened in Fort Walton Beach last month, and offers same-day renewal.

State records show that since July, 1,964 permits have been suspended, a tiny fraction of the universe of 919,831. Another 725 were suspended following domestic violence injunctions, and 513 permits were revoked.

Antigun groups like the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence blame easy access to handguns for the Martin tragedy.

"Don't get me wrong, I blame George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin," the Brady Center's Dan Gross writes. "But I also blame the NRA and the politicians who do their bidding for putting the gun in his hands."

Supporters of gun rights view it very differently.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican famous as the House sponsor of the 2005 "stand your ground" law, vigorously supports concealed weapons and says the overwhelming majority of permit holders are careful, law-abiding citizens.

In a free society, people should have the right to arm themselves, Baxley says.

"These permit holders don't shoot people," Baxley says.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Gun permits in Florida: A growth industry 04/16/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 11:24am]

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