TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Floridians with concealed-weapons licenses are closer to being able to openly carry handguns, though they might be limited to doing so in places where they are welcomed.
The House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday narrowly backed a controversial measure (HB 163) that would allow the 1.45 million people in Florida with concealed-weapons licenses to openly carry.
The 7-6 vote -- a pair of Pinellas County Republicans joined four Democrats in opposition -- came after language was attached to the bill that is intended to protect businesses and private property owners who don't want people to openly carry on their premises.
Bill sponsor Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said after the meeting that he's also willing to study language --- sought by some lawmakers and law enforcement --- to require people who openly carry to use holsters or some other means to secure guns.
"I want to research the impact that that has on public safety and the extent to which that burdens people's rights that we're attempting to vindicate," Gaetz said.
The measure, which has now cleared two House committees, is backed by gun-rights groups and is opposed by a majority of Florida's sheriffs.
The Second Amendment advocacy group Florida Carry, in urging members to contact subcommittee members prior to the meeting, painted the proposal as restoring "our natural right of self-defense!"
Florida Carry attorney Eric Friday said he has represented "multiple" people with concealed-weapons licenses who have been arrested because they inadvertently displayed what were thought to be hidden weapons.
Also, Liberty County Sheriff Nick Finch said the state needs to give citizens every opportunity to defend themselves, "especially in the times we're living in."
"Look at what happened in Paris, France," Finch said. "Nobody was armed, so there is a lot of dead folks. It's ugly, but that's the facts."
But Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, representing the Florida Sheriffs Association, criticized the measure for failing to include regulations about holsters or additional weapons training for license holders.
He said the measure could create confusion for first responders and disputed that individual rights are changed by approving or dismissing the proposal.
"There is nothing in this bill that affects anyone's constitutional right to bear arms," said Gualtieri, who noted that 47 of the state's 67 sheriffs are opposed to the current legislation. "No rights are expanded and no rights are contracted by this bill passing or failing to pass. The same people who are effectively carrying guns for self-protection today will be the same people effectively doing so tomorrow if this bill does not pass."
Opponents also argued the bill would hurt tourism and create public-safety issues.
"I buy the argument that this is a top-down bill and not one that cries out from the public for change," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "I still don't get it, how does bringing more guns to a fight bring more safety?"
Supporting the bill were Republicans Larry Ahern of Seminole; Danny Burgess of San Antonio; Eric Eisnaugle of Orlando; Larry Metz of Yalaha; Mike Miller of Winter Park; Ross Spano of Dover; and Carlos Trujillo of Miami.
Opposing it were Democrats Kionne McGhee of Miami; Sharon Pritchett of Miami Gardens; Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami; and Rouson. Also opposing the bill were Republicans Chris Latvala of Clearwater and Kathleen Peters of Treasure Island.
The bill is filed for the 2016, and a Senate version (SB 300), sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has also cleared one committee and awaits an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Don Gaetz is the father of Matt Gaetz.
Another Second Amendment proposal (HB 4001), which seeks to allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on state university and college campuses, will go before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.