TALLAHASSEE — Florida gun owners who don't have a concealed weapons permit can now take their firearms with them while fleeing a hurricane.
Not that it's been a big problem in Florida in the past. No one can cite an example of a gun owner being arrested while evacuating ahead of a hurricane, but lawmakers didn't want what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago happening here.
New Orleans Police confiscated hundreds of guns from people's homes and from some evacuees. Three years later they agreed to return them to owners to settle a lawsuit filed by the National Rifle Association and Second Amendment Foundation.
"We looked at the real life examples of what happened in Louisiana when people were trying to evacuate, some on foot, and they were stopped at bridges and certain checkpoints and their firearms were seized," said Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, who sponsored the bill. "It took them many months to get them back, if they ever got them back, but they were just trying to comply with a lawful order to evacuate New Orleans."
But Katrina is exactly why Sen. Jeremy Ring opposed the bill.
"Seeing the pictures of New Orleans and the pure chaos that was going on there, I think we'd be better off with less guns than more," said Ring, a Democrat. "To have a riotous situation, I don't feel comfortable to have people running around with guns in a riotous situation."
And if what happened in Katrina was such a concern, he said he wondered why it took 10 years to pass a bill here.
Under normal circumstances, Florida gun owners can be charged with a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison if they have their weapon on or about their person in public without a concealed weapons permit. Florida's new law makes an exception for people evacuating during a declared state of emergency. There is a 48-hour time limit for the exception, which the governor can extend.
Brandes says he knows of no examples of people being charged for carrying a gun without a permit while fleeing a hurricane, but he's sure people have violated the law in the past.
"I think many people are already doing this and they don't understand what they were doing in the past would have been a felony," Brandes said. "They're just trying to flee their homes lawfully."
Unlike bills to allow guns in schools and state college campuses, there was little opposition to allowing unpermitted gun owners to evacuate with their weapons. In five committee stops, no one from the public spoke against the bill, which was supported by police chiefs, sheriffs and gun rights advocacy groups.
"A lot of people would not leave their firearms behind to be destroyed in a hurricane or be stolen by looters," said Marion Hammer, a former NRA president who now lobbies for the group and the Unified Sportsmen of Florida. "So when a law makes criminals out of law-abiding citizens, it needs to be fixed."
Brandes' office had no records of emails or letters opposing the bill, and Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, who sponsored the House version of the bill, only received two emails from people opposing it, including one who called it a "dangerously flawed bill."