It was a rare moment in American public life: A killer's shooting rampage had claimed lives young and old, giving rise to a burst of political will to strengthen gun laws. In November 1998, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state Constitution that allowed counties to mandate background checks for private gun sales — closing the so-called gun-show loophole. Public support for universal background checks had surged over the summer, after Tampa resident Hank Earl Carr, a volatile felon who acquired a stockpile of firearms despite his criminal record, fatally shot three law enforcement officers and a 4-year-old boy. The constitutional amendment passed with 72 percent of the vote.
With their newly granted authority, Florida's most populous urban counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, rushed to enact ordinances regulating gun shows. From a distance, it looked like a bracing example of voters making their will known on an issue that confounds politicians.
The reality is very different. Despite the amendment's passage and counties' actions, the requirements for criminal records checks on private gun sales are virtually unenforced in Florida.
Law enforcement officials, government attorneys and gun-show organizers say the ordinances are ignored in the seven counties — encompassing almost half of Florida's population — that currently have them.
Sheriff's deputies and police officers have responsibility for seeing that the background checks are conducted, but acknowledge they do little to ensure compliance. Gun-show organizers say private sellers typically disregard the laws.
"Nobody's checking anything," said Randie Rickert, organizer of the Hernando Sportsman's Club gun show.
Hernando County passed an ordinance closing the gun-show loophole in 1999 and repealed it in 2009. During the decade the law was on the books, it was ignored at the club's gun show, Rickert said.
"It's a feel-good law," he said. "It had no impact on anything."
The regulations' ineffectiveness appears to have several causes. One is inconvenience. While they are required to perform background checks on buyers, private gun sellers in counties with local gun-show laws have no easy way of doing so, critics of the ordinances say.
Officials say the lack of enforcement is also due, paradoxically, to an absence of public concern about the voter-approved background checks. County ordinance violations are a low priority for law enforcement and are driven by citizen complaints. Yet reports of improper gun sales have been scant, perhaps because patrons of gun shows may not care whether background checks for private transactions take place.
A 2011 state law that restricted counties' authority to regulate guns also led many law enforcement officials to believe — mistakenly, according to attorneys familiar with gun laws — that county ordinances closing the gun-show loophole were voided. (See the story below.)
On the whole, it is an unexpected fate for a campaign that created a meaningful measure of gun regulation in a state famously averse to infringement on Second Amendment rights.
"It's a great disappointment," said former Orange County Mayor Linda Chapin, who was part of the effort to amend the state Constitution. "I mean, Jim and Sarah Brady were down here."
Former White House press secretary Jim Brady became a figurehead of the movement to reform U.S. gun laws after he was shot during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. He and his wife traveled to Florida in 1998 to support the amendment on behalf of Handgun Control Inc., which later became the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Brian Malte, director of mobilization for the Brady Campaign, said local officials' failure to enforce their gun-show ordinances "is not only troublesome, it's dangerous." The lack of background checks for private sales is "a recipe for disaster," he said, preserving access to guns for felons and the dangerously mentally ill.
"When you have 72 percent of Florida voters saying they want to be able to have background checks at gun shows, they expect it's being done," Malte said. "And when they find out it's not being done, I expect there will be a call to action."
While disappointing to gun-control advocates, the state's experience might be instructive. This month the U.S. Senate, acting in the wake of another tragic shooting, is expected to consider legislation that would close the gun-show loophole nationally.
Tragedy, then action
On May 19, 1998, Hank Earl Carr, 30, killed his girlfriend's 4-year-old son with a rifle shot to the head. Before the day was done, he would also shoot to death two Tampa detectives who tried to arrest him, Rick Childers and Randy Bell, and a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, James Crooks. He ended by taking his own life.
Carr had done prison time on charges including assault, burglary and violently resisting police, and was barred under federal law from owning guns. However, police determined through weapons traces that he bought many guns through private sales.
Unlike licensed gun dealers, private sellers aren't required by federal or Florida law to perform background checks on buyers. Since unlicensed sellers often congregate at weekend gun shows, the lack of mandatory criminal-records checks for their transactions is called the "gun-show loophole." (Licensed dealers who appear at gun shows are still required to perform background checks.)
Several months before Carr's rampage, the state's Constitution Revision Commission had given preliminary approval to Amendment 12, which sought to close the gun-show loophole. The measure, after approval by voters, altered the Constitution to allow counties to require criminal-records checks for all gun sales on "property to which the public has the right of access." The language targeted sales at gun shows, which are often held at county fairgrounds and convention centers.
"It was just the right thing to do. Having that loophole is crazy," said former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who served on the commission. He said gun-control advocates settled on a county-by-county approach because they doubted universal background checks would win statewide approval.
The amendment also permitted counties to establish waiting periods of up to five days on private sales — an extension of the state's existing three-day waiting period.
With the Carr case fresh in mind, roughly 2.7 million voters supported Amendment 12 in November 1998. At least 11 counties eventually passed ordinances requiring background checks or waiting periods for private gun sales, though some — including Hernando, Citrus, Orange and Charlotte — later repealed them.
"Frankly, I don't even remember it being that terribly controversial," said Sallie Parks, who was chairwoman of the Pinellas County Commission when the ordinance was passed. "I think people thought it was a reasonable thing to do, reacting to a tragedy in the Tampa Bay area."
Today, seven counties — Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia — have ordinances requiring background checks for private gun sales.
Those counties have 8.8 million residents, or 45 percent of Florida's population, making the effects of the county ordinances potentially far-reaching. But performing background checks on all gun sales is not as easy as it sounds.
'A simple thing'
Unlike licensed firearm dealers, the private sellers regulated by county gun laws have no direct access to buyers' criminal histories.
Doing background checks on private gun buyers involves several steps, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. The private seller must first sign the firearm over into the inventory of a licensed dealer. The dealer then conducts the background check.
For a $5 fee, FDLE checks the potential purchaser's name in a database that tracks nationwide criminal records, lists of people declared "mentally defective" in court and individuals subject to domestic violence restraining orders.
If the buyer is not approved, the dealer must also perform a background check on the seller before returning the gun. If the seller is not approved, the dealer takes control of the weapon.
"With this whole concept of doing a universal background check, it may seem like a simple thing," said Guy Lemakos, a licensed St. Petersburg gun dealer who has put on gun shows in Pinellas, Sarasota and Charlotte counties. "But there are these enormous pitfalls in the mechanics of how you do it."
Even some law enforcement officials suggest the ordinances were poorly thought out.
About five years ago, concerned about the large number of private sales at local gun shows, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office looked into stepping up enforcement of its background-check mandate, said spokeswoman Teri Barbera.
The agency asked an attorney at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to examine the local law. The lawyer's "unofficial" opinion: It was "written very poorly and would be problematic to prosecute," Barbera said.
Among the problems Barbera cited were the inability of private sellers to directly conduct background checks on gun buyers and inconsistencies with federal law. She said deputies settled on asking gun-show promoters to display the county ordinance on a sign.
"We do not believe anyone was ever charged" with violating it, she said.
It is unclear whether the ordinances were applied more vigorously in the early years after counties adopted them. Among the dozens of officials and gun-show promoters interviewed for this story, not one could recall an investigation or prosecution connected to private gun sales.
"I always thought there would be some poor soul who would get arrested for it and then have to go up against it (in court)," said Victor Bean, who puts on gun shows in Miami-Dade County. "I've never heard of one person ever being accused of it, arrested for it, or anything."
While he does not require them to perform background checks, Bean said he always advises private sellers to size up their customers as best they can.
"It's a doggone good idea to make sure you know who you're selling that gun to," he said.
In Hillsborough and Pinellas, officials said an absence of complaints might explain their failure to monitor gun shows.
"Honestly, I'm not sure how you would enforce that without seeing or hearing from someone that they're violating the law," said Senior Assistant Hillsborough County Attorney Paul Johnston.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said deputies have not performed compliance investigations — such as those that undercover ATF agents, posing as customers, conduct on federally licensed dealers at gun shows — because they assumed the county law was being followed.
After learning from the Times about the lack of background checks on private sales, he said stricter policing might be needed.
"I think it's very important," Gualtieri said. "The criminal-history check — at least we should be doing that, to make sure some of these guns aren't falling into the hands of convicted felons."
The survivors' views
The gun-show loophole remains a matter of public interest in Florida. Earlier this year, the Pasco County Commission briefly considered passing an ordinance requiring background checks for private gun sales, only to table the matter.
On Wednesday, Hillsborough County commissioners began a discussion about potentially banning assault rifles and requiring universal background checks. Unmentioned was that the county already has an ordinance requiring background checks for private gun sales that is not being enforced.
Debate is also taking place in Washington, where President Barack Obama supports closing the gun-show loophole nationally. Like Florida's 1998 debate, the present national conversation was spurred by a spasm of gun violence: the fatal shooting of 20 children and six adults in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Gun-control advocates point to states where the laws have already been adopted without widespread problems. According to the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, background checks are required for some or all private gun sales in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia.
But universal background-check proposals have bred skepticism, sometimes in unexpected places.
Mike Crooks, a 67-year-old Clewiston rancher, lost his 23-year-old son, Highway Patrol Trooper James Crooks, in Carr's shooting rampage. But Crooks said he has grown suspicious of calls for further gun regulation. He blames a lax criminal justice system for letting Carr out of prison, rather than inadequate oversight of firearms.
"I'm real skeptical of any new gun laws," Crooks said.
Not everyone touched by Carr's violence agrees.
Kacey Bell, a 25-year-old Fort Myers resident, was 10 when Carr killed her father, a Tampa police officer. She supports universal background checks at the national level and said she sympathizes with survivors of the Sandy Hook school shooting who want to see gun laws reformed.
"I've been personally affected by (gun violence), so I know how those people feel who lost a loved one," Bell said. "People are getting their hands on a gun who shouldn't."
Florida counties that require background checks should "obviously" enforce them, she said.
"I think if they did that to begin with, my father might still be alive."
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.