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Open-carry bill passes Florida House subcommittee

@ByKristenMClark

Gun owners in Florida with concealed-carry permits are one step closer to getting the right to openly carry those weapons in public, under legislation that cleared a House subcommittee today by a 8-4 vote.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who introduced HB 163, said it “restores and vindicates” Second Amendment rights and promotes public safety. But critics of the proposal said it should, at a minimum, include better training requirements and also better protect property owner’s rights if they don't want weapons in their homes or businesses.

Those who are in total opposition said an open-carry law in Florida would instill fear, rather than calm.

“When I am out at Starbucks and there’s a cop there with his gun, it’s intimidating and it’s scary,” said Shawn Bartelt, a retiree and mother of two teenagers from Orlando. “I do not want to walk around when I walk my dogs and know that somebody’s carrying a gun out there. … I don’t want my kids raised in a world where we’re being less civilized.”

Gaetz argued that fighting for gun-owners’ rights has the opposite effect, and he said federal crime statistics are on his side.

“While we will certainly hear from shrill voices on the left that open carry will lead to the wild, wild west, that is not borne out by any of the data we have,” Gaetz said. He said U.S. Department of Justice statistics from 2012 actually show less violent crime in states with open-carry laws.

Florida is one of only five states and the District of Columbia, which prohibit openly carrying firearms and other restricted weapons.

“I like to see Florida on the list of states that enhances people’s rights and makes people stronger, not on the list of states that restricts the choices and the rights of our citizens,” Gaetz said in a morning press conference prior to Tuesday’s hearing.

Gaetz's father, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, introduced the Senate companion, SB 300. Four hours after the House committee vote, Don Gaetz's bill was referred to three Senate committees.

HB 163 still has to face two other House committees, which have yet to schedule hearings.

Don Gaetz said Florida used to be an open-carry state until the late 1980s and better mental health services should be the solution to combat gun violence.

“It is never the case that the answer to an abuse of liberty is to restrict liberty; the answer is to deal with the abuse in a targeted fashion,” Don Gaetz said.

But some House Democrats said the bill should include “sensible measures” to try to keep firearms out of the hands of those with mental health problems, and it also should include stricter training requirements for permit-holders.

“If you think for a second that because you have a concealed-weapon permit that you are capable and knowledgeable about maintaining your weapon in a fight, you are wrong,” said Rep. David Kerner, D-Lake Worth. “This is a strikingly and frightening concept to have an open-carry policy in the state of Florida without any mention of how to safely protect and maintain your weapon. It’s unconscionable.”

The Florida Sheriffs Association has not yet taken a position on the bill, but Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, speaking for himself, praised it as a helpful tool in crime prevention.

“This comes down to giving our citizens the immediate ability to protect themselves,” he said.

The Florida Chamber said it supports the bill but wants more assurances that private property rights will be protected. Gun-rights advocates said the bill doesn't prohibit private property owners from banning guns on their land as they're able to do now.

"This doesn’t change who carries or where they carry, only how they carry," said Eric Friday, a lobbyist for the gun-rights group Florida Carry.

Another bill in the legislative pipeline would allow people on college campuses to carry concealed weapons. It passed the House and Senate criminal justice subcommittees last month.

Should that bill and the Gaetzes’ proposal become law, people on college campuses would -- by default -- be allowed to openly carry their weapons, Matt Gaetz acknowledged.

“If it makes it to the finish line, I think we have to look at how they work together,” Matt Gaetz said.

But public opinion -- according to one poll -- is against allowing, at least, concealed guns on campus.

A massive statewide poll released Monday by University of South Florida researchers shows that 73 percent of adult Floridians want to keep the ban on concealed guns on college campuses, compared to just 17 percent who are in favor. It did not gauge support for openly carried weapons.

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