Permitless carry proposal divides Tampa Bay law enforcement officials

Most who replied to the Tampa Bay Times support the bill but some worry that more guns and no mandated training will increase the danger for cops and the public.
The handle of a Beretta APX 9mm pistol is inspected at the Mad Dog Armory guns and ammo store in Largo in 2020. A Florida bill that would allow people to carry guns without a permit has garnered support and opposition among Tampa Bay area law enforcement officials.
The handle of a Beretta APX 9mm pistol is inspected at the Mad Dog Armory guns and ammo store in Largo in 2020. A Florida bill that would allow people to carry guns without a permit has garnered support and opposition among Tampa Bay area law enforcement officials. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 3

When Florida Republicans announced this week that they would push a bill to allow people to carry concealed firearms without a permit and training, they had a powerful ally: the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis, president of the association, stood alongside the bill’s sponsors during a news conference in Tallahassee Monday. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a past president of the association and a prominent voice in Florida law enforcement, also backs the bill.

But support among law enforcement officials for permitless carry, also known as “constitutional carry,” is not monolithic. Orange County Sheriff John Mina, for example, came out against the move, writing in an op-ed piece that the measure is “more about politics than public safety” and would increase the number of shootings and gun deaths.

There is also some division among Tampa Bay law enforcement, responses to questions from the Tampa Bay Times show.

Officials like Gualtieri say the current law creates an unnecessary barrier for responsible, law-abiding gunowners.

Others, such as St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway, oppose permitless carry and worry that more people carrying guns with less training will mean more danger for police and the public.

“My concern is that with more guns on the street, there may be a greater potential for simple arguments to escalate to gun violence,” Holloway said.

The current permitting process requires a person to be at least 21, pass a background check, complete a basic training course and “demonstrate competency with a firearm.”

The price of getting a concealed carry permit varies, depending on a person’s background and whether it’s their first application or a renewal. For a first-time Florida resident, the license costs $97. Tax collector fees and training courses are additional costs.

The bill doesn’t allow residents to openly carry guns and does not change current law that permits businesses to ban guns from their premises. People who are outlawed from owning guns are still prohibited under the proposal

“It doesn’t mean that it’s going to allow people to get their hands on guns who shouldn’t,” Gualtieri, a Republican, said in an interview.

The measure to be introduced during the March legislative session appears destined for passage in some form. Gov. Ron DeSantis has also advocated for permitless carry.

A spokesperson for the Florida Police Chiefs Association did not respond to emails and a voicemail seeking comment but told the Orlando Sentinel last week that the group had not yet taken a position on the bill.

Supporters of the bill agree gunowners should be properly trained but chafe at government mandates.

“I think we can assume that our citizens are going to do the right thing when it comes to carrying and bearing arms,” Nienhuis, a Republican, said during Monday’s news conference.

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Gualtieri said criminals use illicitly obtained guns and are not stopped by the permitting process, which he said puts “speed bumps in the way for law-abiding citizens.”

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco, a Republican, also supports the bill.

“I fully support the Second Amendment and believe this proposed legislation is in line with our community’s right to bear arms,” Nocco said in a statement.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, a Republican, did not directly answer whether he supports or opposes the bill.

“Sheriff Chad Chronister is an ardent believer and defender of the 2nd Amendment, and an advocate for responsible gun ownership,” a statement from a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said. “Individuals who qualify to lawfully own a firearm have a duty to be properly trained and to always safely secure and store their weapon.”

Tampa’s interim police Chief Lee Bercaw would say only that as law enforcement officials, “Our job is to enforce the law, whatever the law is.” But Bercaw’s boss, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, a Democrat who was the city’s police chief for six years, opposes permitless carry.

“Individuals who want to carry a concealed firearm must pass a background (check), complete a proficiency course and understand the associated responsibility in order to receive a permit,” Castor said in a statement. “Allowing anyone to carry a firearm, openly or concealed, is not a good idea for our community.”

Holloway, the St. Petersburg chief, also cited the importance of training.

“If you have to take a driver’s license test/course before you can operate a vehicle on our roadways, why wouldn’t you want someone to prove that they, at least, have a working knowledge of a dangerous weapon,” Holloway said in an email.

Clearwater police Chief Daniel Slaughter said he supports the bill and isn’t concerned about dropping the training requirement.

“There are courses that are accepted that don’t teach proficiency and competence, so I don’t really find that missing element is problematic,” Slaughter said in an email.

Slaughter said the bill requires permitless carriers to have photo identification and present it to law enforcement upon request, so “instead of checking to see if the concealed weapon permit is valid, the officer will check the criminal history to see if the person qualifies for permitless carry.”

Brandon Barclay, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, said the union has not yet taken a position on the bill but in general supports doing away with the mandated permit.

Training can be a burden to people who can’t afford it “when time after time, we’ve seen that the poorest communities suffer the most violent crime and are at most need for protection,” Barclay said.

Barclay said data shows that gun crimes have not shot up in any of the 25 other states that have passed permitless carry.

Though research on the topic is limited, some studies have shown violent crime increases when states adopt right-to-carry laws.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, told NBC News last year that the most rigorous and recent studies show that deregulating civilian gun carrying tends to elevate violent crime.

“The people who get permits or licenses to carry tend to be in a pretty law-abiding group, but what we’re finding is that as gun-carrying gets deregulated and more people are doing it, a lot more guns are being stolen, particularly from motor vehicles,” Webster said.

Law enforcement leaders in the Tampa Bay area have for years pleaded with gun owners to secure their guns, trying to drive home how often guns are stolen from vehicles — many of them unlocked — and used to commit crimes.

The difference of opinion among Tampa Bay law enforcement officials is reflective of the national picture, said said Adam Winkler, a University of California Los Angeles professor and expert on the Second Amendment and gun policy.

Law enforcement sees firsthand the impact of gun violence, which lead some to support reform measures and oppose easing restrictions, said Winkler, author of a book called “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” But there is also a trend among law enforcement nationally to oppose gun control measures, he said.

“Police officers as a demographic tend to be very conservative and have very conservative political beliefs,” he said. “Expansive gun rights and opposition to gun reform are core values of the modern conservative movement, so it’s perhaps not surprising that police officers support the conservative policy of minimizing gun reform and expanding gun rights.”

Times staff writer Natalie Weber contributed to this report.