1. Opinion

Joe Henderson: NRA working to hold its grip on state agriculture commissioner

Republican State Rep. Matt Caldwell, left, and Democrat Nikki Fried, an attorney in Broward County, face off in the race for state commissioner of agriculture.
Republican State Rep. Matt Caldwell, left, and Democrat Nikki Fried, an attorney in Broward County, face off in the race for state commissioner of agriculture.
Published Oct. 30, 2018

In a weird way, I guess it makes sense that the Florida Department of Agriculture oversees the granting of concealed weapons permits. There always seems to be a bumper crop of guns in these parts.

There are currently about 1.9 million people licensed in the state to conceal and carry.

With that in mind, it's appropriate that the race between Republican State Rep. Matt Caldwell and Democrat Nikki Fried to be the state's next agriculture commissioner is as much about guns, maybe moreso, than strawberries or citrus greening.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported, it's the one race where guns are the dominating issue in advance of the Nov. 6 general election.

Now, we've had more than our share of gun-related issues in Hillsborough County and close by. So, the way these permits are handled basically touches everyone who lives here. And as the Times also reported earlier this year, the agriculture department made a mess of the process.

For 13 months, the department stopped using results from an FBI database to see if there was any reason for someone to be denied a permit, resulting in 291 approvals that later had to be revoked. This state does tend to pass permits out like so many Gasparilla beads, but there are reasons even in Florida to just say no with someone wants a license to conceal and carry.

The snafu, the result of a now-former department employee being unable to log into a computer to do the background check, helped deep-six the gubernatorial aspirations of Adam Putnam, the self-proclaimed "proud NRA sellout."

Fried made this an issue and promises, if elected, to implement new safeguards in the permitting process. Sounds like common sense to me, but here's where the hysteria comes into play.

Marion Hammer, the NRA lobbyist whose influence among politicians and Second Amendment supporters is considerable, decided to stoke the fires of opposition. She flatly declared in a statement to NRA members, "Fried opposes your Second Amendment right to self-defense. If Fried gets elected, she will do everything she can to eliminate our gun rights. That is the plain truth."

That is plain balderdash.

First off, Fried would be eliminating her own rights, since she owns a gun and has a concealed weapons permit. I know lots of women who do the same for protection, and I don't blame them a bit.

But there have to be safeguards in place to keep the wrong people from acquiring a weapon capable of inflicting mass casualties like we saw at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland earlier this year, and that seems to be a problem for the NRA.

Oh, Hammer and her supporters won't say that out loud, of course. Hammer was furious when the story about the bungled permits came out. Hammer always says she wants to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

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She also is prone to hyperbole, though, and she doesn't like pushback. She appears to be afraid that Fried might run a tighter ship on permitting, and in the NRA's world that is just unacceptable.

Gun violence has become a part of everyday life, both here and around the country. One side argues the best way to deal with that is to take away all the guns. The other says the answer is to put more guns in circulation.

Guns here, there and everywhere.

That's an argument built on fear, but I think we've found something that is even scarier to the NRA. The idea of having a new way of doing business at the agriculture department seems to be unacceptable to Marion Hammer.

That's how you get the argument that a gun-carrying, concealed-permit holding candidate is out to destroy the Second Amendment.

No wonder they call this the Gunshine State.