1. Opinion

Editorial: A job for professionals

SCOTT KEELER   |   Times Expect a fight in the Florida Capitol next year over which state agency should process concealed weapons permits.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Expect a fight in the Florida Capitol next year over which state agency should process concealed weapons permits.
Published Dec. 21, 2018

The surest way for Floridians to lose confidence in the state's process for allowing concealed weapons on the street is for lawmakers to continue turning a blind eye to the abuses that have taken place. It's time that professionals from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement oversee the permitting process rather than a single elected politician who can be manipulated by the National Rifle Association.

A recent audit of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services underscores again why an agency that oversees citrus, livestock and the Florida State Fair should not be in charge of processing and issuing concealed weapons permits. The report found that Florida wrongly issued concealed weapons licenses to more people than previously disclosed and allowed contract workers with a history of errors to process thousands of gun applications. This level of incompetence and secrecy is inexcusable for an operation with such a broad impact on public safety, and it reflects the urgency to put the permitting process into more capable and professional hands.

The Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this year that from February 2016 to March 2017 the state stopped using the results from an FBI database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that ensures applicants who want to carry a gun don't have a disqualifying history in other states. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, then a leading Republican candidate for governor, blame one employee for a lapse that led to hundreds of ineligible people gaining a permit to carry a gun in public. He said his department acted swiftly last year to prevent the problem from happening again.

But the report released this month by the state's auditor general raises questions about whether Putnam was entirely forthcoming. It blamed a broader culture of inadequate controls, finding that problems persisted throughout 2017 and that Putnam, in some instances, gave inaccurate information to the public about the scope of the security lapse.

The audit found that the Department of Agriculture never disclosed to auditors that the agency in 2017 was investigating a lapse in background checks even though state auditors had launched their own inquiry. Putnam cited an inaccurate low number of concealed weapons permits that were revoked retroactively as a result of the investigation, and the agency approved additional erroneous licenses through the latter part of 2017 - even after the background check problem was first discovered. Contracted employees continued to work for the department for weeks even after they were flagged for multiple errors, including failing to review criminal histories of applicants. In all, the 49-page report listed 14 "findings" that add to the troubling picture of front-line personnel overloaded with permit requests and inordinately focused on churning out approvals.

Putnam, who described himself as a "proud NRA sellout," has himself to blame for a workplace culture that wasn't working for Floridians. The Times reported in July that Putnam's agency agreed to pay a $30,000 settlement in 2016 to an ex-supervisor who said she was fired for notifying superiors about problems with the licensing program - alleging in a court complaint she was told she "worked for the NRA."

Florida has nearly 2 million concealed weapons permit holders, more than any other state. That huge number, and the unprecedented growth in the concealed carry program, call out for responsible oversight. The incoming agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, has promised a thorough review of the program,and wants the licensing process shifted to FDLE. NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer insists an elected official should oversee the program, and she has suggested Republican Jimmy Patronis, the state's chief financial officer.

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The finance office oversees finance - everything from state retirement funds and insurance to unclaimed property - and it's as ill-suited to oversee concealed weapons as the Agriculture Department. The FDLE is the appropriate agency to conduct background checks, and the working environment of law enforcement would bring much needed accountability to the licensing process. It takes only one mistake to enable a tragedy. If Florida is going to lead the nation in issuing concealed weapons permits, it at least should do so safely.


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