TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday backed a proposal that combines allowing people to carry concealed firearms without licenses and efforts to improve school safety, despite Democratic arguments that easing gun restrictions would increase violence.
A Senate committee on Monday approved a similar measure, with some gun-rights groups --- which want people to be able to openly carry firearms in most public places --- calling the proposal "too weak."
The Republican-dominated House committee voted 16-7 to approve the House version (HB 543), which would allow people to carry concealed guns without going through state licensure, background screening and required training. It also would provide money for school hardening and take other steps to address school safety, including coordinating threat-assessment services, allowing armed "guardians" in private schools and calling for firearm-detection dogs at schools.
With Tuesday’s vote, the House bill is ready to go to the full House after the annual legislative session starts March 7.
Bill sponsor Chuck Brannan, R-Macclenny, said the proposal would allow people to decide for themselves about carrying concealed firearms for self-defense, while also providing a deterrent to mass shootings through such things as the expansion of school guardians.
"This bill will simply allow Floridians to carry their firearm without the red tape and expense of a government license," Brannan said.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Monday voted 5-3 along party lines to approve the Senate version (SB 150).
Both versions have drawn fire from people who favor gun restrictions — and from some Second Amendment advocates.
Alexis Dorman, a Florida State University sophomore from Orlando and member of the Florida Chapter of Students Demand Action, said allowing people to carry guns without licenses will exacerbate gun violence.
"Kids today are watching victims the same ages as themselves die of gun violence at restaurants, schools, concert venues, shopping malls, parks, neighborhood gatherings, sporting complexes and, worst of all, inside their own homes," Dorman said. "This puts into perspective just how much gun violence has impacted an entire generation."
But groups of gun-rights advocates --- including Gun Owners of America, Florida Carry and Florida Gun Rights --- pulled their support from the bills and disputed lawmakers’ characterization of the measures as "constitutional carry." They called the bills "too weak" because people wouldn’t be able to openly carry firearms in public.
"This bill does change nothing in the grand scheme of things. We were promised constitutional carry," Luis Valdez of Gun Owners of America said Tuesday.
As of Jan. 31, nearly 2.63 million people had Florida concealed-weapons licenses, which are issued by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
While much of the debate about the bills has focused on the concealed-carry issue, they also would continue to revamp school-safety laws. Lawmakers have repeatedly addressed school-safety issues since the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17 people.
Under both proposals, private schools would be allowed to participate in the guardian program, which allows designated school staff members to be armed.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, on Monday criticized the current concealed-weapons license process and praised parts of the bill he said will help school safety. He also pushed back against allowing people to openly carry guns.
"I'm a staunch opponent of open carry. We don't need open carry in Florida. I don't think that it serves a good purpose for Florida," Gualtieri told the Senate committee. "But also know that this concealed carry permit requirement serves nothing for Florida. And the reason it serves nothing for Florida is because it has no bearing on who goes and buys a gun."
Under the proposals, people who carry concealed firearms would be required to have valid identification to display upon demand by law enforcement officers. The proposals also would keep in place a current list of locations where people are prohibited from carrying concealed firearms, such as courthouses, police stations, government meetings, polling places, athletic events, schools and airport passenger terminals.
Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, contended the proposal would result in increased violence.
"You should know how to carry that gun. You should know it's dangerous," Hart said. "And I'm beginning to wonder if our children really understand how quite dangerous it is. And here we are saying, ‘It's OK. Nobody needs to have a permit. Just buy yourself a gun.’"
But Rep. Chase Tramont, R-Port Orange, pointed to issues such as broken homes, poverty, peer pressure, low self-esteem and drug abuse for increased crime, rather than people having guns.
"So, to reduce this to someone simply exercising their God-given rights to protect themselves and their families is not based in reality," Tramont said.
The proposals would provide $42 million for school "hardening." Among other things, they would provide $12 million to set up an information-sharing system that would coordinate services for students considered for threat assessments.
The bills also would create the Florida Safe Schools Canine Program, which would be designed to help add firearm-detection dogs.
The measures would encourage schools and students to partner with law-enforcement agencies to raise funds to support firearm-detection dogs.