April 08, 2016

NRA seeks to weigh in on open-carry case before Florida Supreme Court

@ByKristenMClark

UPDATE: 2:55 p.m. -- The Florida Supreme Court this afternoon granted the NRA's request to file an amicus brief in the case.

ORIGINAL STORY: 1:53 p.m. --

The National Rifle Association has filed a motion in the Florida Supreme Court to appear as a "friend of the court" on behalf of a man challenging Florida's law banning the open-carrying of handguns.

The court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in June in the lawsuit filed by Dale Norman, who was arrested and charged with open-carrying in 2012 in St. Lucie County. He was later found guilty of a misdemeanor and sued to challenge the state law.

The 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that regulating the open-carrying of firearms does not violate the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The state's top court will consider Norman's appeal this summer.

In its motion, the National Rifle Association said it has an interest in the case on behalf of its 300,000 members in Florida.

"A decision holding that open and peaceful bearing of arms is not constitutionally protected conduct would expose these NRA members to legal jeopardy and defense costs," wrote the NRA's Tallahassee-based attorney, Jason Gonzalez.

Gonzalez notes that the NRA was "deeply involved" in crafting legislation this past session that would have allowed 1.5 million people with concealed weapons in Florida to openly carry handguns.

The legislation -- sponsored by father-son duo Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- passed the House but stalled in the Senate. Judiciary Chairman Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, refused to take it up, calling the measure unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

The NRA's lobbyist, Marion Hammer, said the legislation was necessary to stop what she called the unwarranted prosecution of gun-owners who openly carried by accident, such as when their shirt briefly rode up or when a gun became visible inside a woman's purse. (In Norman's case, he had been carrying his gun in a holster on his hip while walking down a street in Fort Pierce when someone alerted 911.)

Democratic lawmakers in the House sought provisions to ease those concerns about inadvertent open-carry, but Republicans rejected adding them to the proposed bill. Hammer has said the only solution is to allow open carry altogether.

The Florida Supreme Court in January granted "Everytown for Gun Safety" -- which advocates for gun-control laws -- the ability to file a "friend of the court" brief in Norman's case. The NRA says it will provide more detailed evidence to refute that group's claims, if it's allowed to submit a brief of its own.

Read the NRA's request here.

March 22, 2016

Florida Supreme Court to hear open-carry case in June

From the News Service of Florida:

The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments June 8 in a challenge to a state law that bars people from openly carrying firearms.

Justices issued an order Monday scheduling the arguments in the challenge filed by Dale Norman, who was arrested in 2012 in Fort Pierce while openly carrying a gun in a holster. After a jury found Norman guilty of a misdemeanor charge, the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld the state law, ruling it does not violate constitutional rights to bear arms.

Norman then appealed to the Supreme Court, which said in October that it would take up the case.

During the legislative session that ended this month, lawmakers considered proposals that would have allowed people with concealed-weapons licenses to openly carry guns. But the measures did not pass.

March 03, 2016

Don Gaetz backs off attempt to revive open-carry proposal

@ByKristenMClark

Sen. Don Gaetz today backed down from plans to make a last-ditch effort in getting his open-carry proposal heard this session.

The Niceville Republican had wanted to amend his plan on to a different concealed weapons bill that senators heard on the chamber floor today.

But the attempt was short-lived.

Ever since Gaetz filed the proposed amendment last night, some senators had been coordinating to thwart Gaetz by citing Senate rules.

Heading into the Senate session this morning, Gaetz acknowledged the opposition but said "we'll give it a try."

But when SB 612 came up early this afternoon, Gaetz said he'd been advised by Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, that his amendment was "out of order," because it was the subject of his standalone bill that stalled in committee.

Gaetz said "in deference to Senate rules" he would withdraw the open-carry amendment.

Gaetz's bill -- which would let 1.5 million concealed-weapons permit-holders openly carry handguns in Florida -- cleared the its first committee last fall but then stalled before the Senate Judiciary Committee when Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, refused to take it up.

Diaz de la Portilla's decision to not even consider open-carry sparked anger from Gaetz two weeks ago -- which led to a passionate retort from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, with whom Gaetz has had a long-standing feud.

The Republican-heavy House passed its version of the open-carry bill in February, by a 80-38 vote.

March 02, 2016

Sen. Don Gaetz wants to revive stalled open-carry proposal through floor amendment

@ByKristenMClark

There's a reason lawmakers are hesitant to declare bills dead until the end of session, because there's a lot of procedural maneuvering that can be done to keep stalled bills alive, or at least out of the grave.

Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz is employing one such tactic to breathe life into his controversial proposal that would let 1.5 million concealed-weapons permit-holders openly carry handguns in Florida.

Gaetz this evening filed an amendment to a different concealed weapons bill, in the hopes of adding his open-carry measure to it.

Gaetz's bill cleared the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last fall but then stalled before the Senate Judiciary Committee when Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, refused to take it up. (Two weeks ago, Diaz de la Portilla's decision sparked anger from Gaetz, which led to a passionate retort from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.)

The bill Gaetz wants to add open-carry to is narrowly titled "an act relating to slungshots." Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, is seeking to remove slungshots from the state's concealed weapons statute.

Hays' bill (SB 612) -- and Gaetz's proposed amendment -- is on the calendar for senators to consider Thursday.

February 23, 2016

Despite chance at revival, changes to Florida's "stand your ground" law won't be heard again

@ByKristenMClark

Revived efforts to change Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law are once again presumed dead for the 2016 session.

The "Hail Mary" pass for the legislation hinged on a Senate-approved bill getting consideration Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee. But the bill is not listed on the committee's agenda, which was released this afternoon.

The meeting is the panel's last scheduled gathering of the 2016 session.

Jacksonville Republican Rep. Charles McBurney, the House judiciary chairman, did not immediately return a voicemail seeking comment on why he chose not to take up the bill -- SB 344, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

Opponents -- including victims' family members, state attorneys and Democratic lawmakers -- had been mobilizing this week to kill SB 344, as they did the original House version, which stalled in the criminal justice committee last fall.

"We spent most of the floor session today -- some of my colleagues and I -- working the bill and it looked like we had the votes to kill it, quite frankly," Rep. David Kerner, D-Lake Worth, told the Herald/Times this afternoon.

Kerner -- who has led the opposition to gun bills under consideration this session -- said he kept McBurney informed of his efforts and "didn't ask him to do anything specific; I just wanted him to know where a lot of the members were on the committee."

The bill not being put on the agenda "could mean there wasn't support for the bill or leadership made a decision not to find out," Kerner said. "But whatever it is, it's a win for a lot of people. It's a win for victims, it's a win for prosecutors trying to do their job and it's a win for the community that just wants to be kept safe."

It's not a win for the National Rifle Association, which lobbied for the bill.

Continue reading "Despite chance at revival, changes to Florida's "stand your ground" law won't be heard again" »

February 19, 2016

Jack Latvala says Don Gaetz is hypocritical for attacking Miguel Diaz de la Portilla

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@ByKristenMClark

So much for peace among Republicans in the Florida Senate this session.

After Sen. Don Gaetz issued a statement last night blasting fellow Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla for killing his open-carry bill, another Republican senator today is accusing Gaetz of being a hypocrite.

"When Don Gaetz was Senate president and throughout my time serving with him, he has never hesitated to use whatever procedural options were open to stifle the will of anyone else in the Senate," Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said today.

He cited a couple of instances during Gaetz's presidency from 2012-2014 when he said he felt the Niceville Republican used his power as president to halt the progress of Latvala's own priorities.

"For him to be talking about one senator stifling the will of the Senate, he needs to make sure he has clean hands," Latvala said.

Latvala and Gaetz are not ones to mince words about each other and they have a history of showing publicly their dislike for one another. During the special session on Senate redistricting last fall, Gaetz rose for a 17-minute tirade on the Senate floor in which he called Latvala a "bully" and criticized him for being critical of Senate leadership.

Latvala retorted to Gaetz shortly after, but those wounds clearly haven't healed.

"This is a perfect example of him doing the same thing to somebody else, and I’m just tired of it," Latvala said today. "Senator Gaetz is used to having his way, and he didn’t get his way this time. It’s unfortunate for him to put out a statement about another senator like that, and I’m just sick of it."

Gaetz today declined to respond to Latvala's comments.

His controversial legislation would have allowed 1.5 million people with concealed-weapons permits in Florida to openly carry handguns.

Earlier this month, the Republican-heavy House easily passed its version -- sponsored by Gaetz's son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- but Don Gaetz's companion bill stalled in the Senate in front of Diaz de la Portilla's Judiciary Committee.

The Miami Republican announced Tuesday he won't take up the bill, which prompted Don Gaetz's statement Thursday evening. Gaetz accused Diaz de la Portilla of "fearing the debate" over open carry, "stretching" his authority as a committee chairman and of "promising and then reneging" on plans to find a compromise on the legislation.

Diaz de la Portilla stands by his decision. He said Thursday he couldn't see a workable solution for something he called "such lousy public policy and so dangerous for the state of Florida." He also said Gaetz was "disingenuous" to criticize him for exercising his authority as a committee chairman. (Gaetz himself is currently in charge of the education budget committee.)

Latvala also said today that he doesn't think Gaetz really had the votes to pass his open-carry bill, which Gaetz maintains he does.

The Republican majority isn't as large in the Senate, where there are 26 Republicans and 14 Democrats. Twenty-one votes are needed to pass a bill.

Latvala said he's among the senators who had reservations about open carry and "probably would've voted against it" if it came to the floor.

He said open carry isn't a constitutional issue, as the Gaetzes have proclaimed. Latvala said he sees the motive as more political and described it as something to help the National Rifle Association "gin up their numbers and to keep their members involved."

"Nobody’s trying to take anybody’s rights away from them," Latvala said.

Photo credit: Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, speaks on the Senate floor in 2014. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

February 18, 2016

Gaetz: Diaz de la Portilla 'stifled will of Senate' on open carry, 'promised and then reneged' on compromise

Florida Legislature(2)

@ByKristenMClark

State Sen. Don Gaetz said in a lengthy statement this evening that Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla "stretched" his authority as Judiciary Committee chairman and "stifled the will of the Senate to cast an up or down vote" on Gaetz's proposal to let people openly carry handguns in Florida.

Gaetz, a conservative Republican from Niceville, also accused Diaz de la Portilla of lying about his intentions to find a compromise on the highly controversial measure.

"I’m deeply disappointed," Gaetz said. "It is perfectly proper to vote against a bill. It reflects poorly on any chairman to fear the debate.

"The Judiciary Committee chairman promised and then reneged on a commitment to meet with me and other pro-Second Amendment legislators to try to negotiate differences in good faith," Gaetz added.

The more-moderate Diaz de la Portilla made it official Tuesday that he would not hear Gaetz's bill this session -- killing it as he has two other gun bills this year that sought to expand how and where more than 1.5 million people with concealed-weapons licenses in Florida can carry handguns.

Diaz de la Portilla said this evening that Gaetz was "disingenuous" with his criticism, because Gaetz himself is a committee chairman and former Senate president who understands the prerogative chairmen have.

"Senator Gaetz knows that committees chairs can’t possibly agenda every bill that is referred to their committee," Diaz de la Portilla said.

Gaetz acknowledged that Diaz de la Portilla is "technically within his rights as a chairman not to hear the bill."

Gaetz added: "I have faced the same question as Senator Diaz de la Portilla: Should I kill a bill that a majority of legislators want to debate, and perhaps pass, just because of my own personal preferences? In fact, I have faced that question on matters important to Senator Diaz de la Portilla and his constituents. The difference is I did not stretch my authority to stifle the will of the Senate to cast an up or down vote.

"Put simply, Senator Diaz de la Portilla used his power as a committee chairman to deny senators and the public the opportunity even to discuss the issue of open carry and vote for or against the bill," Gaetz said.

Current Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, has supported Diaz de la Portilla's decision, though. Gardiner left it to Diaz de la Portilla to decide whether the open-carry bill and other contentious gun proposals would be heard, and he has been consistent in empowering other committee chairmen with that discretion, also.

Diaz de la Portilla said he and Gaetz "spoke briefly on the floor once" about open carry "and maybe on another occasion before that." He said Gaetz did not address his frustrations with him directly.

Gaetz said he believes his open-carry bill could have passed the full Senate "with the constructive amendments recommended by The Florida Police Chiefs Association."

But that's another point of disagreement between the senators.

The police chiefs' provisions -- which included requiring openly carried weapons to be holstered -- were added to the House version, which was sponsored by Gaetz's son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. (That bill passed the Republican-heavy House earlier this month.)

However, the Florida Sheriffs Association offered amendments of their own, which were rejected in the House and which Don Gaetz said he would have not wanted considered in the Senate.

The sheriffs' proposal would have gutted the bill. It wouldn't have allowed open carry but would have solely addressed a problem that the National Rifle Association said was its motive for seeking an open-carry law: the prosecution of people who inadvertently display concealed weapons.

Diaz de la Portilla said Thursday the sheriffs' proposal was "the only solution or compromise that I felt was workable."

"I did rack my brain trying to find a workable solution on the issue of open carry, but at the end of the day, it’s such lousy public policy and so dangerous for the state of Florida," he said. "You can’t fix something that is such terrible public policy."

Emphasizing Floridians' Second Amendment rights, Gaetz said his bill "would have allowed only those persons lawfully able to carry handguns to do so without concealment, without brandishing them, without violating private property rights and without allowing weapons in any place where they are now prohibited."

Diaz de la Portilla has said previously, though, he worried about "unintended consequences" of the legislation.

"Some things are such bad ideas that there’s no fixing them," he said Thursday. "Unfortunately, that’s the case with Senator Gaetz’s bad bill."

Photo credit: AP

February 17, 2016

Proposed reforms to Florida's 'stand your ground' law revived with House referral

@ByKristenMClark

Potential changes to the state's "stand your ground" law were resuscitated in the Florida House this past week, despite the original measure stalling in a subcommittee last fall.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, referred the Senate-approved bill to the House Judiciary Committee, which gives the chamber a second chance at considering the policy this session.

"It's a fair discussion to have," Crisafulli told reporters after Wednesday's session. "If they pass it, they pass it. If they don't, they don't."

Jacksonville Republican Rep. Charles McBurney, the House judiciary chairman, has the prerogative to hear the bill -- SB 344, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

McBurney told the Herald/Times Wednesday evening that "no decision has been made" on which bills might be taken up after the committee's hearing Thursday morning.

Bradley's bill is not on that agenda. The committee has at least one more hearing scheduled (for next week), but McBurney said the agenda hasn't been set.

Judiciary is the only committee Bradley's bill was referred to in the House, so if it's heard and passes, the bill would go straight to the House floor for a final vote.

House Democrats are annoyed that the "stand your ground" reforms are back in play, because their success at killing the House bill -- by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala -- was a rare victory for them in the Republican-led Legislature. It was also an unusual defeat for a priority of the National Rifle Association.

"When I learned of it, I went to the chairman of judiciary, and I said, 'Even when I win, I lose,' " said Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, who led the opposition that led to a deadlocked vote on Baxley's bill.

Because it failed to advance out of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, the House members on that panel effectively killed Baxley's version.

"It's now back from the Senate. I think there's some procedural pitfalls in doing that," Kerner said. "We have a process and the bill died by a bipartisan vote, and the fact that it's back is very unfortunate and we're working to kill it again."

In order for proposals to become law, identical bills have to pass out of the House and Senate. Traditionally, in the Florida Legislature, separate bills are filed and advanced separately through each chamber.

After Baxley's bill died, Bradley's version continued progressing through legislative committees in the Senate, and senators passed it by a 24-12 vote in late January.

Crisafulli noted that the House judiciary panel was among the committees that Baxley's bill "would have gone to, had it not died over here."

Both bills shift the burden of proof in self-defense cases, requiring prosecutors to prove why a defendant could not claim the state's "stand your ground" law as a defense for their actions. The law, adopted in 2005, allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives or property in certain circumstances, with no obligation to retreat or flee.

Republican lawmakers offered bills this session in response to a Florida Supreme Court ruling last summer that stated defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they’re entitled to that immunity. Bradley contended the justices “misinterpreted legislative intent” of the decade-old law.

Bradley's bill was amended in the Senate, so prosecutors would be subject to a lesser burden of proof than what the original bills proposed.

Prior to the Senate vote, Democrats in that chamber railed against Bradley's bill, arguing it would “stack the deck against justice for the dead,” especially for victims who are minorities.

February 16, 2016

'Open carry is not going to happen,' Sen. Diaz de la Portilla says

@ByKristenMClark

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said Tuesday evening a proposal allowing 1.5 million people with concealed weapons permits in Florida to openly carry handguns is officially dead for the 2016 session.

"Open carry is not going to happen; it's done," the Miami Republican senator told reporters.

Diaz de la Portilla had expressed growing reluctance for weeks about holding a hearing on SB 300, saying last week it was "on life support."

It's among three gun bills he's killing this session by not granting them hearings in his committee, a powerful prerogative that committee chairman have.

Last month, Diaz de la Portilla said he wouldn't hear a similarly controversial bill that would allow concealed-weapons permit-holders to carry concealed on public college and university campuses. Also Tuesday, he said he won't hear a bill that would allow concealed weapons to be carried in Florida airport terminals. (It passed its first committee earlier in the day but it won't be heard in the House, so it was essentially dead anyway.)

“On all of these gun bills, I don’t believe any of them are necessary,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “They could result in unintended consequences. I think we need to prioritize in our committee, as far as what we hear. We can’t hear every bill that’s referred to us.”

Both the campus-carry and open-carry bills passed the Republican-heavy House earlier this month. Diaz de la Portilla's decision to halt both of them has made him the target of praise from gun-control supporters and of anger from gun-rights advocates, including the National Rifle Association. (More here.)

UPDATE: (8:45 p.m.)

The Florida League of Women Voters -- one of the vocal opponents to open carry -- issued a statement this evening applauding Diaz de la Portilla's decision.

"This bill was an assault on public safety and yet another case of the gun lobby trying to force their way into the legislative agenda," league President Pamela Goodman said. "The League of Women Voters of Florida cannot praise Senator Diaz de la Portilla enough for listening to his constituents, listening to law enforcement, and listening to the vast majority of Floridians in opposing open carry."

Proposal to allow concealed guns in Florida airport terminals faces dim prospects

@ByKristenMClark

A plan to let some gun-owners carry concealed weapons in Florida airport terminals was approved by its first Senate committee on Tuesday, but its chances at becoming law this year are nearly impossible because its House companion has yet to be considered.

SB 1500 by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, is among several gun bills under consideration by lawmakers this year that aim to expand gun-owners' rights and specifically those of the 1.5 million people with concealed weapons permits in Florida.

Simpson said the legislation is needed because airport terminals "could become more of a target" for terrorists and criminals, since they are among 15 areas codified in state law where even concealed-weapons permit-holders can't carry weapons. "Sterile" areas of airports -- those past security checkpoints and controlled by the federal Transportation Security Administration -- would remain a prohibited area for weapons.

The bill received initial approval from the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday along party-lines, with Democrats in opposition.

But the House companion to Simpson's proposal -- HB 4051 by Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia -- is all-but-dead because it has not been heard by any of the three committees it's been assigned to. It awaits a hearing before the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, but that panel held its final meeting of the 2016 session two weeks ago.

"We’re continuing to work to try to get the bill heard and to try to pass what we believe is a good policy," Raburn told the Herald/Times.

Simpson said the legislation is intended to let "law-abiding citizens" carry concealed when they visit airports, such as when dropping off or picking up family and friends or when dining or shopping in commercial areas that are outside security checkpoints.

As well, "the bill is needed to make sure our citizens have the right to protect themselves in the event that we have someone try to murder a lot of folks in an airport," Simpson told reporters after the hearing.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, questioned why lawmakers would want to "introduce more weaponry into airport terminals."

"They need to be carrying their concealed weapons to walk their person to the gate because of terrorists?" Gibson asked.

The Florida Airports Council -- which represents 19 commercial airports and more than 75 general aviation airports, including those in Tampa, Miami and Fort Lauderdale -- has similar concerns and opposes the proposal.

Also, council representative Michael Stewart said, "if there’s incidents, law enforcement officers would have concerns about who’s carrying weapons and who’s not."

Simpson's bill has two more committee stops in the Senate. It next goes to the Judiciary Committee, where chairman and Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, has declined to hear two of the most high-profile gun bills this session: ones that would allow some gun-owners to carry openly in most places and to carry concealed on public college and university campuses.

"We just keep moving in the process and we'll see how this works out," Simpson said.