TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - After a debate that conjured memories of Hurricane Katrina, the Florida Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a bill that could lead to more people carrying concealed weapons when fleeing natural disasters.
The bill (SB 290), sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would allow people to carry guns without concealed-weapons licenses for 48 hours during mandatory emergency evacuations. The bill would only apply to people who legally own guns.
Brandes said people ordinarily can face third-degree felony charges for carrying concealed weapons without licenses. He said the bill would allow people to take firearms, along with other valuables, when they are forced to leave home because of hurricanes or other disasters.
"This is about this incredibly rare instance, this incredibly tailored instance, where people are fleeing for their lives," he said.
But some Democratic lawmakers blasted the proposal, saying it would introduce more guns into the chaos and emotions of a mandatory evacuation.
"Why in the world would we want to increase anxiety by having a lot of guns next to children and families?" asked Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.
Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, said supporters had not presented any evidence of why the bill is needed.
"I need to know why we need to change the law," Sachs said.
Senators voted 29-10 to approve the bill, which has the backing of the influential National Rifle Association. The House version (HB 493), filed by Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, has moved through committees and is ready to go to the full House.
A similar bill died last year in the Senate, amid concerns by the Florida Sheriffs Association and some Republican and Democratic senators. But Brandes made changes that addressed the concerns, such as adding the 48-hour time period for carrying weapons. The 48 hours could be extended by the governor.
The specter of Hurricane Katrina, the storm that devastated the New Orleans area in 2005, was raised by senators on both sides of the debate Tuesday.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, pointed to Katrina and its chaotic aftermath in arguing against the bill.
"In Katrina, we saw people living in close quarters with their families,'' she said. "So why in the world would we want to increase anxiety by having a lot of guns next to children and families?"
But bill supporter Joseph Abruzzo, D-Boynton Beach, emphasized that the bill only applies to lawful gun owners and that weapons would have to remain concealed.
"At the end of the day, in Katrina there (was) looting beyond explanation,'' said Abruzzo, one of four Democrats who backed the bill.. "Almost any house that was able to get ransacked was. And to say people have to leave guns in their home under those conditions is not safe."
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