Permitted concealed firearms would be allowed in GOP convention protest zone

Published April 3, 2012

TAMPA — If Tampa's proposed rules for the Republican National Convention are passed, protesters could not bring squirt guns into a designated protest zone.

But they could bring real guns if they have concealed weapons permits.

That's because state law does not allow local governments to enact laws regulating guns, City Attorney Jim Shimberg Jr. said.

"Even if we tried to regulate it, it would be null and void," Shimberg said Monday.

Not that the city didn't consider it.

The first draft of Tampa's proposed temporary ordinance laying out rules for the convention did include restrictions on guns inside the city's proposed "Clean Zone," which will cover all of downtown, including a designated protest area.

"It was just kind of common sense," Assistant City Attorney Mauricio Rodriguez said. "We felt if we're going to regulate people carrying sticks and poles, why wouldn't we regulate people carrying firearms, because those could pose significant risks to police and other protesters."

But later, city attorneys removed the ban on guns after finding that Florida Statute 790.33 prohibits local governments from enacting any laws on the sale, purchase, transfer, taxation, manufacture, ownership, possession, storage or transportation of guns or ammunition.

Enacted last year, the state law allows judgments of up to $100,000 against local governments that enforce local gun ordinances. It also says local officials could be removed from office and fined $5,000, with no representation from the city or county attorney.

After the Legislature enacted the law, municipalities scrambled to revise local ordinances. Tampa repealed a ban on discharging a firearm in city limits, though it's still against state law.

There is, however, one place where guns won't be allowed.

That's the convention itself, and it's because the U.S. Secret Service has authority to make the rules inside the convention, which is scheduled for Aug. 27-30.

The Secret Service will set up, fence and tightly guard its own perimeter around the convention. It's not saying where the perimeter will be, but city officials have assumed it will encompass the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the Tampa Convention Center, Embassy Suites Hotel, Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina, some of the waterfront and maybe the Tampa Bay History Center.

The Secret Service will check credentials and use metal detectors to scan every person going inside the security perimeter. Only law enforcement officers working in their official capacity will be allowed to carry guns into the perimeter, Secret Service spokesman George Ogilvie said.

While there is a lot of joint planning between local and federal officials, local authorities will be chiefly responsible for responding to what happens outside the Secret Service perimeter.

To give demonstrators the opportunity to speak their minds while keeping downtown safe, the city proposes to establish a protest zone near the Times Forum.

The zone's outline hasn't been set, but officials say it likely would be fenced and protesters would be screened to keep out certain items, including weapons.

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The zone also could also have water, portable toilets and access to a stage and microphone. While protesters couldn't camp there, they could stay and demonstrate as long as they wanted. It would be open 24 hours a day.

That protest area would be included in a "Clean Zone" the city is creating to cover downtown, Ybor City, the Channel District, parts of some nearby neighborhoods, plus Harbour Island and Davis Islands.

Outside that protest area in the Clean Zone, the city would allow groups of 50 or more people to march, but only on an official parade route, or to rally, but only at city parks. They would need a city permit, and no parade or rally could last longer than 60 minutes.

During the week of the convention, Tampa also would ban various items, depending on the location in Tampa:

• Citywide, there would be a ban on carrying pieces of wood, hard tubes or anything else that could be used as a club, as well as water guns, super soakers, air guns, paintball guns, explosives, switchblades, hatchets, slingshots, brass knuckles, Mace, chains, crowbars, hammers, shovels, or any container containing urine, fecal matter or other bodily fluid.

• In the Clean Zone, the ban would be expanded to prohibit ropes, straps, tape or string longer than 6 inches, glass containers, ceramic vessels, light bulbs, padlocks and bicycle locks, things that could be used as portable shields and gas masks.

• Inside the protest area, the ban would be expanded still further to prohibit aerosol cans, camping gear, coolers and ice chests, fireworks, lasers, bottles, cans, thermoses, sticks, poles, ladders and umbrellas with metal tips.

The temporary ordinance containing these proposed rules is scheduled to go to the Tampa City Council for the first of two votes Thursday.

Police will continue to train to watch for and respond to people who might be armed, whether at the convention or during daily patrol.

"Often, officers don't know when they first come in contact with someone if they are armed," Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. "They're always preparing for that, always alert."