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  1. Opinion

Column: Open carry would undermine public safety in Tampa Bay and quality of life

The pirate ship Jose Gaspar arrives at the Tampa Convention Center during the Gasparilla celebration. Who wants guns at Gasparilla?
The pirate ship Jose Gaspar arrives at the Tampa Convention Center during the Gasparilla celebration. Who wants guns at Gasparilla?
Published Jan. 22, 2016

Over the past five years, Tampa has taken its place on the stage of America's greatest cities. Every day, Tampa's more than 350,000 citizens go about their lives on the streets and in the neighborhoods of our vibrant city. They attend Little League games. They bike along our beautiful new Riverwalk. They walk Seventh Avenue in Ybor City.

Now, imagine each one of those scenes again with one big difference: People are carrying firearms openly. That's the vision of Tampa and Florida that could become reality if the proposed open carry legislation (SB 300/HB 163) is enacted by our state Legislature.

As the mayor of one of Florida's largest cities and one that is a hub for tourists from around the world, I'm certain that this legislation will undermine the tremendous progress Tampa has made on so many fronts. It threatens public safety, tourism, economic development job creation and our quality of life. Moreover, I believe it is a foolish and ineffective solution to the gun violence epidemic sweeping our nation. More guns do not equate to safer streets.

The public safety concerns cannot be overstated. There are currently about 1.5 million people in Florida with a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Under this new legislation, all of them would be authorized to carry their weapon openly anywhere that Florida law currently allows concealed carry. For law enforcement officers, this means that when they arrive at the scene of a crime or disturbance, they will have no way to distinguish the "good guys" with guns from the "bad guys" with guns.

Our police officers need to make split-second decisions in these kinds of scenarios — they do not have the luxury of time to decipher a good Samaritan from a criminal. Adding open carry to the mix is going to make their job even tougher and potentially add to the number of victims in already tragic and life-threatening situations.

It will also add an explosive new ingredient to almost any kind of interpersonal dispute or misunderstanding that any of us can encounter on any given day. The argument between the parent of a Little Leaguer and the umpire. The road rage that erupts when someone cuts you off in traffic. All become potentially deadly encounters when people are openly carrying weapons.

Just as troubling to me is that an open-carry environment may hurt our ability to attract companies to relocate or build new job-creating facilities here in Tampa. The hard work of recruiting major conventions and large-scale events like the Super Bowl will become more difficult. And for the tourists our economy depends on so heavily, this new factor may not exactly be in sync with their dream of a relaxing, family-friendly Florida vacation.

When we look at the experience of other states with open carry laws, we see numerous published reports that it is generating confusion for law enforcement and anxiety for the public. In Texas, where open carry went into effect Jan. 1, it has created a new burden for retail businesses, which must consider how this will affect their customers. The San Antonio-based Whataburger chain announced it would not allow open carry in any of its restaurants.

Their CEO said in a press release: "We've had many customers and employees tell us they're uncomfortable being around someone with a visible firearm who is not a member of law enforcement." Starbucks, Chili's, Jack in the Box and Chipotle have also released similar statements.

I've been encouraged to see that others are raising concerns about this proposed legislation, including the Florida Sheriffs Association, the League of Women Voters, the Pinellas Police Standards Council, parent groups like MomsRising.org and several local and county leaders throughout the state.

I add my voice to theirs, and urge you to do the same. As a longtime gun owner myself, I believe that responsible gun legislation in no way impedes my Second Amendment rights to own or enjoy firearms.

To our Tampa citizens, if you feel as I do that this legislation will harm the quality of life we enjoy in our city, I urge you to contact your state legislators and express your views. And to the residents of greater Tampa Bay and Florida, I say, please, take a pause. Think about what's at stake, and how dramatically this legislation could transform the Sunshine State's magic into something much darker.

Bob Buckhorn is the mayor of Tampa. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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