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Poll shows Tampa Bay residents starkly divided over Florida's proposed open-carry law

State Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville
State Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville
Published Jan. 3, 2016

Tampa Bay area residents are starkly divided over a proposed law that would allow more than 1.4 million Floridians to openly carry firearms.

Open carry is opposed by 49 percent of registered voters surveyed in a recent poll commissioned by the Tampa Bay Times and 10News WTSP.

An equal share, 49 percent, support allowing Floridians with concealed-weapons licenses to openly carry handguns in public.

But within that 49 percent are a significant number of residents who would go even further: 16 percent believe anyone who can legally own a firearm in Florida should be able to carry that weapon openly in public.

The poll surveyed 605 registered voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties from Dec. 3 to 10. It has a 4 percent margin of error.

Some, including local law enforcement, say open carry could put people in danger. Others say open carry would create visual deterrents that could prevent crime.

"It should be everyone's right to be able to do that," said Byron Hines, 30, of Tampa, about a gunowner freely displaying his or her weapon. "It's fair so that they can defend themselves."

Almost half of those polled, 49 percent, said an open-carry law would make them feel less safe; 37 percent said it wouldn't change how safe they feel. Ten percent said it would make them feel safer.

The bill, sponsored by the Republican father-son duo of Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, would allow concealed-weapons permit holders to carry their guns "anyplace that a person has the right to be, subject only to exceptionally and narrowly tailored restrictions."

Matt Gaetz has said the bill "restores and vindicates" Second Amendment rights, while promoting public safety in Florida. More than 1.4 million people have concealed-carry permits in the state. To get a concealed-weapons license in Florida, a gun owner must undergo registration requirements that include fingerprinting, proof of training and passing a background check.

The National Rifle Association and other supporters also argue the proposed law would ensure permit holders aren't prosecuted if they accidentally reveal their concealed weapons in public.

Currently, 45 other states have some variation of an open-carry law.

But at least 10 local law enforcement officials in Tampa Bay oppose it, according to a survey by the Times in October. That includes Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is also legislative chair of the Florida Sheriffs Association. He said he wasn't surprised by the survey results, especially the nearly half of residents against open carry.

"That's a pretty significant number," he said. "I think people realize what this is and what it's not. … You don't have to have open carry to have effective public safety."

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He also said some supporters he has spoken to misunderstand what would happen if the law didn't pass. Some, he said, think they would no longer be able to carry their weapons. He said the ongoing legislation debate is focused on the manner in which a gun is carried, not if it should be carried at all.

"I think there are people — I know there are, a whole bunch — who think it affects their rights," he said. He added that the difference between the current law and the proposed law is a matter of keeping a firearm "discreetly in your purse or strapped around your neck."

"People don't necessarily feel safe when you're sitting in the cereal aisle in Publix with your kids if you got some guy with a big .45 on his hip walking down," Gualtieri said.

Katie Newcomer, 57, of Tampa certainly wouldn't. She said a friend recently visited Tennessee, a state with open carry, and a man had his gun on the table at a restaurant.

"Do you need your gun at breakfast at Waffle House?" Newcomer said. "And to me, it's depressing that's where we are in this country."

She was referring to the high-profile mass public shootings that took place in the United States last year and claimed dozens of lives in places like a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.; a college campus in Roseburg, Ore.; a military recruitment center in Chattanooga, Tenn.; and a holiday office party in San Bernardino, Calif.

But those same 2015 shootings are why some say they want weapons to be visible, carried out in the open.

"It would let the bad guys know," said Hines, a research interviewer at Nielsen. "It might be a deterrent for a lot of crime."

Hines doesn't own a gun but has thought about getting one.

Ruth Reeves, 67, of Clearwater has a .38-caliber revolver — and a concealed-carry permit. If the proposed law passed, she would consider openly displaying her gun.

"I believe that in today's current environment with so much gun activity with terrorists or people having other issues, we need to take a step back to a time of life when people knew you could take care of yourself," said Reeves, a financial specialist for a construction company. "I think it needs to be more obvious that there are not any soft targets."

Tampa police Chief Eric Ward has heard supporters of open carry argue that armed citizens could help law enforcement in an emergency.

He doesn't see it that way.

"When you do that, you put citizens in a situation that could be dangerous, not just for them, but for law enforcement, as well," he said. "When you have an active shooting situation and the officers are responding, they don't know our good citizens from the bad guy."

Newcomer, who helps professionals relocate to Tampa Bay, said she already worries about people walking around with loaded weapons. Open carry would concern her even more.

"What if they're wrong?" she said of an armed citizen pulling the trigger with the intent of helping police.

The Florida Police Chiefs Association's board of directors voted in early December to accept the bill — if four proposed amendments to open carry were adopted, such as requiring that handguns be carried in holsters.

Ward and Gualtieri both said they support the right to bear arms — as long as it's a legal weapon concealed under a jacket or in a bag, as current Florida law requires.

Gualtieri said the Sheriffs Association is working on an alternative proposal to open carry that would keep concealed-permit holders from getting in trouble if they accidently expose their weapon.

The proposed changes to open carry are in a bill that is now in the House Judiciary Committee. The 2016 legislative season starts Jan. 12.

Some of those who support the law aren't confident it will pass. Reeves, who has had her gun for five years, is one of them.

"I think it's a little before its time," she said.

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.