Nikki Fried passed two rites of office this month, riding the giant slide to open the Florida State Fair and receiving the National Rifle Association's blessing (for now) to continue managing the state's concealed-weapons licensing program. The former was expected; as agriculture commissioner, Fried oversees the state fair under her authority to promote Florida heritage and farming. But the NRA endorsement was another bid by the gun lobby to maintain its corrosive influence on a matter of public safety, and another reminder of why the concealed weapons permits should be overseen by professional law enforcement.
In an open letter posted to the NRA's web site, association lobbyist Marion Hammer called on Fried to "administer the licensing program fairly and without political prejudice." The two have verbally dueled since last year's election campaign, when Hammer’s influence over the Agriculture Department and the poor management of the program under former Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam became campaign issues. Fried, a Democrat, had even embraced calls by some to move the licensing program to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
In her letter, Hammer warned Fried to uphold the licensing program to the letter of the law. "Fried needs to show Floridians that she can be fair and properly administer the program," she wrote. And while Hammer said the NRA welcomed efforts to fix "any real problems," the issues could not be "imagined or manufactured problems like those in the media." She warned Fried against allowing "personal political philosophies" to shape her decisions. And she closed by declaring that some 2 million license holders "will hold (Fried) accountable if she decides to play politics with the licensing program."
The letter was equally belligerent and condescending, capturing perfectly the NRA's contribution to this debate. Fried has said she intends to take a "deep dive" into the recommendations for reform stemming from an internal report and a separate inspector general's study. She said during the campaign she did not want to stand in the way of people who seek concealed weapons permits but wanted more accountability and safeguards in the process. Her comments followed reports by the Tampa Bay Times in 2018 that showed lapses in the department's background check process for ensuring that permit applicants did not have a disqualifying history. A report by the state's auditor general in December said that continuing problems in the background procedures were due to a broad range of inadequate controls, including front-line personnel overloaded with permit requests and an office culture inordinately focused on churning out approvals.
Fried set the right tone as a candidate by pointing out the clout the NRA carried under the previous administration. "Employees of the Department will work for the people of Florida,"she stated then. "Neither the Department, nor its employees will carry out the interests of the NRA, or any outside group that seeks to unduly influence the rules that apply to them."
The best way to build that wall would be to relocate the concealed weapons licensing program to FDLE. Let the Agriculture Department promote citrus and other key sectors of the Florida economy, and leave the licensing to carry concealed weapons to law enforcement professionals.