Gun owners in Florida who already have permits to carry concealed weapons could be a step closer in being able to carry them openly in public.
House Bill 163 passed the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Tuesday on an 8-4 vote. It will go before two other House committees at later dates.
The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Fort Walton Beach, points to figures from the Justice Department, as part of his argument that the bill does not create a less-safe environment.
“In 2012, the last year in which the Department of Justice keeps broad-range, state-by-state crime statistics, it was very clear that in the states that allowed open carry, we had a lower murder rate; robbery rate, aggravated assault rate,” said Gaetz. “And we had a 23% lower aggregated (sic) violent crime rate.”
Facing questions from the subcommittee, Gaetz avoided directly answering just where guns should not be carried. He did say that his measure makes it clear that there are existing “narrowly tailored” restrictions where firearms can be carried.
“I think there’s a broader debate that’s happening about gun-free zones,” Gaetz said. “Perhaps within Rep. Steube’s bill. This bill (HB 163) does not change the places where one could carry a firearm.”
Gaetz referred to HB 4001, sponsored by Rep. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota), which would allow concealed carry on college campuses. It passed the House and Senate criminal justice subcommittees last month.
Opponents to open carry, such as Debbie Harrison Rumberger with the League of Women Voters, say it would cause fear, rather than calm.
“We also oppose these measures, as they would make it more difficult for police to make arrests for unlicensed carry,” Rumberger said. “We oppose the strict scrutiny, with which this law would be applied, and we believe that this bill is a threat to public safety, and strongly encourage you to vote against it.”
One of the four dissenting votes on the subcommittee came from Rep. Dave Kerner, a Democrat from Palm Beach.
“The suggestion that our state constitution is in conflict with the Second Amendment is incorrect,” Kerner said. “The suggestion that our statutory law is in conflict with the Second Amendment is [also] incorrect.”
Among Kerner’s concerns about the bill is weapon retention – the ability to protect one’s weapon from having it taken away in a dispute.
“This is a strikingly and frightening concept, to have an open-carry policy in the state of Florida with 20 million people,” said Kerner. “Without even one mention of how to safely retain and protect your weapon, is unconscionable. The right to carry a weapon irresponsibly is not a constitutionally protected right. And that’s what this bill will do.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz addressed Kerner directly, in saying that his belief in the “purity and sanctity” of the Second Amendment is based on a textual reading of the amendment itself.
“I do believe that this bill enhances the rights of citizens, and vindicates and restores rights that have been granted, not by government, but by God,” Gaetz said.
Gaetz's father, Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), introduced the Senate companion, SB 300, which has yet to be referred to a committee in that chamber.