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Open carry gun law easily clears House panel

On one side in the Florida House were sheriffs, state attorneys, large retailers like Publix and Associated Industries of Florida. On the other side: Marion Hammer, long-time lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. Guess who won?

The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday easily approved the so-called "open carry" bill for concealed weapons permit holders. The vote was 14-4 with Democrats John Julien of Miami and Darren Soto of Orlando joining all Republicans in voting for the bill (HB 517), which is sponsored by Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary. He says the bill is needed to prevent lawful permit holders from inadvertently violating Florida law.

Lt. Rick Hernandez of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office raised the specter of gun-carrying, partying, drinking patrons at the annual Gasparilla festival, which draws 400,000 people. "Lots of drinking, lots of problems," Hernandez told lawmakers. "Now we're going to have citizens out there that are probably going to have guns."

Hammer said the open carry provision is needed for the sake of the 800,000 people who carry concealed weapons for self-protection.

"Every time they leave the house with a concealed weapon, they run the risk of it being accidentally or unintentionally or inadvertently exposed, and being observed by a law enforcement officer who's having a bad day," Hammer said.

Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats also urged defeat of the bill, as did Randy Miller of the Florida Retail Federation and Arthur "Buddy" Jacobs of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. Supporters noted that 43 states already have an open carry law, but Hernandez countered that three of the four most populous states (Florida, New York and Texas) do not.   

-- Steve Bousquet