February 03, 2016

Florida Senate president: Gun bills are "in trouble"

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@ByKristenMClark and @MaryEllenKlas

Although the Florida House is expected to pass two controversial gun bills this afternoon, the odds are continuing to diminish that they'll become law this session.

Speaking to reporters today, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said the proposals are "in trouble," as far as the Senate is concerned. One of the bills allows concealed weapons permit-holders to carry openly and another lets them carry concealed on public college and university campuses.

Gardiner has been consistent that the fate of the bills rests with Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where both bills await another hearing. Diaz de la Portilla said he won’t hear the campus-carry proposal in his committee for the second year in a row, and he indicated last week he could change his mind and not hear the open-carry plan, either.

Gardiner confirmed today that outcome is likely.

"I think now he has some concerns about open carry," Gardiner said of Diaz de la Portilla. "It's not my intent to pull those bills out of committee, so I would say, yeah, they're probably in trouble."

Diaz de la Portilla has not returned messages from the Herald/Times seeking comment.

For weeks, some Republican leaders in the Florida Senate haven't been as enthusiastic about the proposals as their counterparts in the more conservative House.

The open-carry bill was amended Tuesday evening on the House floor to also include a provision allowing Florida's 160 state lawmakers to carry concealed in official meetings of the Legislature, a location that's currently one of several so-called "gun-free zones" designated in state law.

Gardiner said he supports removing that exemption.

"To me, if you're taking away an exemption, especially for somebody else, you should live by that same standard," Gardiner said, "so it should be all the way across the board, but I don't know if we'll even get that bill to make that point."

Photo credit: Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, speaks to reporters with the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau during a pre-session interview late last year. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times

VIDEO: Florida House members react to debate over open carry

@ByKristenMClark

Florida House members were in session until nearly 10 p.m. Tuesday night, spending much of the evening debating two high-profile gun bills: open carry and campus carry.

The open-carry bill was amended with one significant change: To allow lawmakers to carry concealed handguns in legislative sessions and official meetings. It's one of the handful of areas specified in law where licensed gun-owners can't carry concealed.

Here's what Republican and Democratic leaders had to say about that amendment following last night's session, and read our full story here about the evening's debate.

Floor votes on both the campus-carry and open-carry measures are expected this afternoon in the House.

 

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

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@ByKristenMClark

The governor plays cornhole at the Florida Capitol, lawmakers huddle for initial budget talks and controversial gun bills get a floor vote in the House. Here's what we're watching today:

* Proposed plans for the 2016-17 budget will go before the House's and Senate's full appropriations committees. Both chambers have scheduled daylong meetings to debate and revise their respective proposals, which were released Friday. (House Appropriations, 8 a.m., 212 Knott Building. Senate Appropriations, 9 a.m. 412 Knott Buiding)

* Gov. Rick Scott is elevating his efforts to persuade the Legislature to support his call for a $1 billion tax cut and $250 million in business incentives. In a rare move, he's hosting a rally at the Florida Capitol, starting at 11 a.m. It will feature "leaders from around the state" and a specialty cornhole set branded with Scott's slogan of "1st For Jobs."

* The House Finance and Tax Committee, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, plans to formally unveil its "bipartisan" tax cut package -- and "much anticipated" hashtag -- during a press conference after the committee's meeting, set for 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

* More than 100 employees of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa plan to visit with House and Senate members to help draw support for a $3 billion gaming compact, which the Seminole tribe and the governor signed but which the Legislature is hesitant to back.

* The House convenes for session at 3. After heated debate yesterday evening, the chamber is expected to pass two controversial gun bills and consider a slew of other legislation on the table.

Photo credit: Gov. Rick Scott's office

February 02, 2016

Under revised open-carry bill, Florida lawmakers could carry concealed guns in legislative meetings

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@ByKristenMClark

Florida's 160 lawmakers could inconspicuously pack heat in the state House and Senate chambers and legislative meetings, under a provision tacked on to a controversial open-carry handguns proposal that's expected to pass the Florida House on Wednesday.

The amendment by Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, was one of almost two dozen proposed changes that representatives vetted -- and a handful they approved -- during three hours of debate that stretched past 9 p.m. Tuesday over two high-profile gun bills.

The measures alter how 1.4 million people with concealed weapons permits in Florida can carry handguns.

The Republican-dominated House accepted Wood's idea by a 72-43 vote to allow lawmakers to carry concealed guns in legislative sessions and official meetings, but it's possible the change could prove fatal for the measure, which already faced a tough climb in the Senate.

Both the open-carry measure and another that would allow permit-holders to carry concealed on public university and college campuses are likely to pass the House. But across the Capitol, Senate Judiciary Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said he won't hear the campus-carry proposal in his committee for the second year in a row, and he indicated last week he could change his mind and not hear the open-carry plan, either.

The two measures are endorsed by the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups, but opponents cite numerous safety concerns.

Heading into Tuesday's House debate, more than 40 amendments were filed to the open-carry bill but almost half were later withdrawn; those were mostly rebuttals that bill sponsor and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, initially sought.

All but one of the others -- Wood's -- were filed by Democrats, as an attempt to chip away at the proposal and add exclusions to where concealed-carry permit-holders could openly carry. Each Democratic amendment failed by wide margins with almost entirely Republican support.

Continue reading "Under revised open-carry bill, Florida lawmakers could carry concealed guns in legislative meetings" »

44 amendments filed to Florida House open-carry bill ahead of today's scheduled floor debate

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@ByKristenMClark

The discourse over gun rights versus gun control will be on full display in the Florida House this afternoon.

The chamber's 120 representatives are set to debate a high-profile and controversial measure that would allow 1.4 million people with concealed weapons permits in Florida openly carry their weapons statewide.

As of late Monday, 44 amendments -- including four that were subsequently withdrawn -- had been filed to HB 163,  a little more than half of them by Democrats seeking to shore up or chip away at what they described last week as flawed legislation.

They're unlikely to be successful in the Republican-majority chamber, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- the sponsor of the bill who says he wants to "vindicate" Floridians' Second Amendment rights by legalizing open carry -- filed 21 of the proposed changes, many of them substitute amendments that appear to counter the Democratic proposals.

Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, has brought back an amendment he attempted but later withdrew during last week's lengthy and heated hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. It would allow lawmakers to carry concealed in legislative sessions and official meetings.

Among the Democratic amendments, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, of Coral Springs, leads the pack with 16 proposed changes. Rep. Amanda Murphy of New Port Richey has proposed four others, and Rep. Joseph Geller of Aventura offered two.

Their proposals include:

Continue reading "44 amendments filed to Florida House open-carry bill ahead of today's scheduled floor debate" »

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Both the House and Senate are in session today, and they'll have plenty of old and familiar faces on hand as their special guests for the morning. Here's what we're watching:

* Current and former lawmakers will come together in each chamber, as part of a weeklong legislative reunion in Tallahassee. The House is set to honor former members during a special "reunion" session from 9:15-10 a.m., and then the Senate plans to do the same from 11 a.m. to noon, after an hour of regular floor work.
 
* The House convenes again for its regular session at 4 p.m. Daily business is set to include debate on sanctuary cities, revisions to the state's 10-20-Life law and two high-profile guns bills -- open carry and campus carry.
 
* The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee will consider a proposal to address Florida's death penalty procedures in the wake of the Hurst v. Florida U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this month. A Senate panel held a similar hearing last week. Along that same vein, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this morning on whether Hurst applies to the case of death-row inmate Michael Lambrix, who has been denied a stay for his execution set for Feb. 11.
 
* The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee will debate two controversial ideas: Making both the commissioner of education and the secretary of state elected positions.
 
* A contingent of current and former NFL players will join Democratic lawmakers for a press conference urging the Legislature to sign off on a settlement deal reached in the wrongful death suit of Florida State University freshman linebacker Devaughn Darling. Darling collapsed and died in 2001 while participating in a series of intense conditioning drills at FSU.

January 29, 2016

Florida House plans to take up open-carry, campus-carry gun bills next week

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida House is making quick work of a proposal to allow people with concealed weapons permits to openly carry handguns in Florida.

The legislation cleared its final committee in a contentious hearing on Thursday, and the full chamber plans to debate it during the House's next session scheduled for Tuesday.

HB 163 is on the daily calendar, as is a similarly controversial bill that would let concealed weapons permit-holders carry concealed on the state's 40 public college and university campuses. 

Any floor vote on the guns-on-campus bill -- HB 4001 -- is likely to be mostly political, though, because the proposal has stalled in the Senate, all-but-killing its chances at becoming law this year.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said last week he won't schedule a hearing on it. Proponents are hoping to use some legislative maneuvering to get around his decision, but Senate leadership said that wouldn't be well-received.

The open carry bill, meanwhile, is likely to pass the Republican-dominated House, but could face similar jeopardy in the Senate. Diaz de la Portilla said earlier this month he was willing to have a hearing on it because of an amendment proposed by the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Democrats in the House tried to push that amendment Thursday but were shot down by a Republican majority. The change would have gutted the bill, stripping away the ability to openly carry and instead only shoring up protections for gun owners who accidentally display concealed weapons -- which the National Rifle Association said was its primary desire for the bill.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville -- sponsor of the Senate open carry bill -- said Thursday he won't support that amendment.

And it seems that Diaz de la Portilla could be reconsidering his decision to hear the bill at all. The Naples Daily News reported that Diaz de la Portilla might block the bill if it doesn't include the sheriffs association's amendment. Efforts to reach Diaz de la Portilla on Friday were unsuccessful, so the Herald/Times cannot independently confirm that report.

Also on the House's debate calendar Tuesday: Legislation that would make it a misdemeanor crime to fire a gun outdoors recreationally, including for target shooting, in a primarily residential area. It's aimed at prohibiting backyard gun ranges in densely populated areas.

January 28, 2016

Florida Senate approves changes to "stand your ground" law

@ByKristenMClark

By a 24-12 vote, the Florida Senate on Thursday approved changes to the state's "stand your ground" law -- which are endorsed by the National Rifle Association but which opponents argue would "stack the deck against justice for the dead," especially if the victim is a racial minority.

The legislation shifts the burden of proof in a pre-trial hearing from defendants to prosecutors, requiring state attorneys to prove "by clear and convincing evidence" why a defendant could not claim "stand your ground" in self-defense cases.

Its prospects at becoming law are unknown, because a House version -- which required the demonstration of a higher burden of proof from prosecutors -- unexpectedly stalled in November in committee, a rare defeat for a priority of the NRA.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island -- sponsor of SB 344 -- said again Thursday he wants for House leadership to take up his bill directly on the House floor. It's unclear whether House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, intends to exercise that option.

Crisafulli spokesman Michael Williams told the Herald/Times that “the House will take up the bill for consideration when it comes over from the Senate,” but it hasn’t been decided whether it will be brought immediately to the floor for a vote or referred to committees.

Bradley said he “anticipates” a floor vote in the House.

"I've gotten general indications that's where it's headed," he said. "I'm confident there's a majority of House members who would agree with the majority of the Senate that this is the right public policy for the state of Florida."

Bradley sought the changes to "stand your ground" in light of a Florida Supreme Court ruling last summer that he has argued "overreached" the court's powers.

In the case known as Bretherick v. Florida, five of seven justices ruled defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they’re entitled to that immunity, but Bradley contends the justices "misinterpreted legislative intent" of the decade-old law.

Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ 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.

"We're getting it right today," Bradley said on the Senate floor, adding that "the state should have the burden of proof in criminal prosecution from beginning to end."

Sen. Gwen Margolis, of Miami, was the only Democrat to join the chamber's Republican majority in passing the bill. She changed her vote afterward, but the official record reflects the result as 24-12 with her as a “yes” vote.

Prior to the floor vote, several Democratic senators invoked the names of high-profile victims -- including Trayvon Martin -- in expressing their opposition to "stand your ground" and Bradley's proposed changes, but Republicans said Trayvon's case had nothing to do with the law.

Trayvon, a 17-year-old from Miami Gardens, was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford four years ago. Zimmerman was later acquitted.

Shifting the burden of proof in self-defense cases would require prosecutors to "somehow prove a negative; that there was no threat, no reason to be fearful," Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said.

"In these cases, you only have one person’s side of the story; it's the last man standing," Thompson said. "Trayvon couldn’t tell his side of the story because he was dead. So we only have the version that was presented by the individual who hunted him down, who tracked him, who engaged him in an altercation."

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, said the enforcement of “stand your ground” has already proven to have wide disparities depending on the race of the victim, and this legislation could further hurt the chances for minority victims to get justice.

She cited statistics from the American Bar Association that she said show a white shooter of a black victim is 350 percent more likely to be found justified in use of deadly force than if the victim was white.

Bradley said, "it's simply incorrect to suggest this bill would result in otherwise guilty individuals going free."

He described his measure as "procedural" and said if prosecutors have sufficient evidence to prove a case before a jury at trial, they should have no problem convincing a judge in a preliminary hearing.

But Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the hearing happens when "the case is still ripe; they haven't even got all the evidence in."

"You’re getting the immunity, the least you can do is put on some evidence of it," he said.

He also criticized Bradley for citing the dissent of Justices Charles T. Canady and Ricky Polston as part of his rationale for seeking to change the law.

"When I was in law school, the dissent was what we called: 'What the law is not,' " Smith said.

After lengthy, lively debate, open-carry proposal heads to full Florida House

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@ByKristenMClark

Despite discord among the state’s law enforcement officers and passionate efforts to derail it, a National Rifle Association-backed measure to allow nearly 1.5 million people to openly carry guns in Florida is ready for consideration by the full state House.

A compromise version of HB 163 -- by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- easily passed the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The 12-4 vote came after 2-1/2 hours of debate that included mentions of terrorism, God and the Wild West, and four unsuccessful amendments aimed at scaling back the drastic shift in public policy.

Tallahassee Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda was the only Democrat to side with Republicans in supporting the measure.

If it becomes law, concealed-weapons permit-holders could carry handguns openly wherever they're allowed to carry concealed. Private businesses -- ranging from grocery stores and bars to Disney World -- would be able to decide whether people can carry guns, but no public place -- such as a public hospital -- could ban them, unless guns are banned already under state law.

The Senate version -- SB 300, sponsored by Gaetz's father, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville -- awaits consideration before that chamber's Judiciary Committee, its second of three committee stops. Chairman Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, has said he'll give it a hearing.

Matt Gaetz's measure is likely to earn favor in the full House, where 81 of the 120 members are Republicans, but Democrats said they plan to continue fighting.

Republicans and gun-rights supporters heralded the proposal on Thursday as one that fortifies constitutional rights, or what Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, called a "God-given right to openly carry weapons."

But Democrats and gun-control advocates blast the measure because they fear it would jeopardize law enforcement officers' safety as well as public safety. They say it could harm Florida's "family friendly" tourism industry, and some also worry about the ready ability terrorists could have to openly carry handguns.

Continue reading "After lengthy, lively debate, open-carry proposal heads to full Florida House" »

Open-carry bill up for final hearing in Florida House this morning

@ByKristenMClark

A controversial proposal -- backed by the National Rifle Association and gun-rights advocates -- that would allow more than 1.4 million people in Florida to openly carry guns goes before its third and final House committee this morning.

Expect lively debate by the House Judiciary Committee over the proposal from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. At least two divergent amendments have been proposed; others might have been filed since last night, but are not publicly available yet.

Gaetz is offering a compromise to his bill, in line with what the Florida Police Chiefs Association has requested. His amendment would allow openly carried guns to be loaded or unloaded, but they'd have to be holstered.

Also, the language removes restrictions on judges and law enforcement that his original bill included, which would have limited how police investigated people openly carrying and how judges decided cases. Gone is the "strict scrutiny" mandate on judges and inserted is a clarification that the proposed law "is not intended to restrict a law enforcement officer’s ability or authority to conduct investigations."

However, police officers would remain vulnerable to lawsuits if someone accuses the officer of violating their right to bear arms, a penalty that Gaetz's bill still includes.

Meanwhile, Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, has filed an amendment that would gut the bill and replace it with provisions sought by the Florida Sheriffs Association. General open carry wouldn't be allowed. The changes aim to target only what the NRA has said is its primary concern: the prosecution of people who accidentally display concealed weapons.

But NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said this morning that solution is off the table. She said lawmakers aimed to resolve that issue in 2011 but it didn't work. She said NRA attorneys believe the only fix is to allow open carry in general.

She added: "We're ready to fight."

The proposed law would still only apply to people who have concealed weapons permits in Florida.

The committee hearing starts at 9. Stay tuned to see what happens.