By Jim Turner
TALLAHASSEE — Floridians permitted to carry concealed handguns would be able to display firearms on the outside of their clothes, under a measure that cleared its first House committee Tuesday.
However, several lawmakers in both parties and an influential business group expressed concerns about the potential impact of the proposal on private property rights.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted 8-4 to support the measure (HB 163), filed by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, for the 2016 legislative session. It would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to openly carry firearms, something the state has banned since establishing conceal-carry rules in 1987.
Gaetz described his proposal, one of a number of firearm-related bills before the Legislature, as allowing citizens to be “armed with their own liberty.”
The Northwest Florida lawmaker pointed to certain crime rates that are lower in other states that allow some form of open-carry. But he wouldn’t go so far as to say his measure — his father, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is sponsoring the Senate version (SB 300) — will make Florida safer.
“I can say that the statements from some of the shrillest voices that oppose the Second Amendment that this will lead to the wild, wild west are unfounded based on any review of the crime data and statistics maintained by the (U.S.) Department of Justice,” Matt Gaetz said.
Still, the measure, backed by gun-rights groups, may need to be changed or face opposition in future committees.
Gaetz said the bill wouldn’t have any impact on a separate proposal (SB 68 and HB 4001) that would allow people to carry concealed weapons on state university and college campuses nor would it permit people to openly carry guns into private businesses that prohibit firearms. Gary Hunter, representing the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said the bill needs more clarity about private property rights.
“That’s an important issue to many businesses who feel like that’s something that could be of concern to them,” Hunter said.
Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President David Hart said outside the meeting that the business group — which hasn’t taken a formal position on the Gaetz proposal but has a board-level policy about protecting private property rights — will oppose the measure if it continues to advance without changes.
Criminal Justice Subcommittee member Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican who also serves on the Judiciary Committee, said that while he was voting for the measure Tuesday, he hoped the property-rights issues could be worked out before its next committee appearance.
Others said the proposal needs to better define how people can publicly display handguns while openly carrying.
“What we’re talking about is allowing people to walk down a street with a firearm in their hand — pointed down, not pointed at anyone but pointed down — they can lawfully walk past a bank, past a bar, past a school, not encased in a holster,” said Rep. Dave Kerner, a Lake Worth Democrat who voted against the measure. “The right to carry a weapon irresponsibly is not a constitutionally protected right, and that is what this bill will do.”
Kerner added there is little to no instruction in concealed-weapons training courses about how to keep other people from simply taking openly carried firearms.
“The reason that police officers carry their weapons in a level-three holster is because of the fear that if they’re in a fight that weapon can be stolen, taken and used them against them,” said Kerner, a former police officer.
Gaetz said he expects concealed-weapons courses would be changed to include better instruction on how people can secure their weapons while openly carrying.
“We’ve trusted various gun-safety organizations to be able to develop that curriculum,” Gaetz said. “I think a natural consequence of this bill is it will be that that curriculum will evolve to reflect the rights people have.”
As for law enforcement, the Florida Sheriffs Association has yet to take a position. But Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, who appeared with Matt and Don Gaetz at press conference before the committee meeting, said he supports open-carry as a crime deterrent.
“I will promise you that the best law enforcement agencies in the country has response times in minutes, but violent criminals are going to take our lives in seconds,” Ivey said.
Austin Landis produced this update.
For World Teachers’ Day, serious changes to the current testing system might be the best present for Florida educators.
In a statement addressed to families of Alachua County Public Schools, Superintendent Owen Roberts explained the common problem facing Florida schools: a lack of accountability with standardized testing.
“We may have reached a tipping point,” said Jackie Johnson, public information officer for Alachua County Public Schools. “The sheer mass of testing, paired with the uncertainty surrounding the new tests and the impacts that they will have on students is absolutely unacceptable.”
Tracy Ciucci, a health education professor at Palm Beach State College and member of Opt Out Orlando, says the big issue is that the Florida Standards Assessments has significant gaps in validation.
And although state officials claim that lower performance reflects higher assessments, instead, they represent a failure in the ever-changing standards and tests, according to Nikolai Vitti, superintendent for Duval County Public Schools.
“The message being relayed is that teachers need to be babysat, which predicates a false sense of accountability,” Ciucci said. “When decisions regarding education are being made, policy makers are ignoring the real experts: educators in the classroom.”
Although Florida educators support accountability and high standards, the rollout of the Florida standard assessment has been rough.
“The biggest concern for teachers is that the testing is not valid,” said Ginger Stanford, assistant principal at Westwood Middle School in Gainesville.
Educators are told that they will have to wait until 2016 to receive the cut scores, which will then determine whether or not their students passed the test.
“All of those things have really created the perfect storm,” Johnson said. “[Superintendents] see the terrible impact it’s having on students, on teachers, on schools, on families, and I think they reached the point where they’ve said, ‘We support high standards, we support accountability, but the way it’s being done in Florida is just not okay.’”
Organizations like the Opt Out Florida Network, an educational advocate group fighting against high-stakes testing, are showing their support for the promotion of more positive learning environments.
Due to the emphasis placed on testing, 23 elementary schools cut recess in the 2014 school year to implement test prep, which focuses solely on math and reading. The decision to remove recess was later revoked, but the message was clear: changes were being made to accommodate the shifting test standards.
“Every hour spent on testing is taking away from active teaching,” Ciucci said. “Every day revolves around test preparation. The joy is completely sucked from the room in education these days in order to prep for the test.”
Alachua County Public Schools recognizes the discouragement felt by educators and their annoyance at the apparent micromanaging of the state and national government.
“They’re cutting out the joy of teaching and cutting out out the joy of learning,” Johnson said. “We are losing good teachers who are resigning, to leave the state or to leave the profession. We want to stop that from happening and it’s going to take a ground swell of support and more communication from parents and teachers and other citizens who care about education.”
Editors Note: This story has been updated to correct an earlier version that incorrectly stated the PTA at Kimball Wiles Elementary School and the PTO at Westwood Middle School are joining forces to protest mass testing according to Ginger Stanford.
Florida ranked 47th in the country for sexual health by the State by State Safer Sex Index.
And to Samantha Evans, that may not be all that bad.
“It’s not necessarily a good thing, but it could mean that we’re doing our job,” said Evans, who is health promotion specialist at GatorWell at the University of Florida.
While Evans said the numbers were initially surprising, she hopes they mean the majority of cases are being properly reported.
The study, which was sponsored by Trojan Brand Condoms, looked at HIV rates, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy rates and more.
While Florida has an excellent surveillance system for diagnosing sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, Evans said, it is also in an unusual position when it comes to reporting long-term health problems.
Much of the state’s population is transient — many people move to the state at a later point in their lives. They could have contracted the diseases while living in another part of the country, she said.
Evans said the most important aspect of sexual health is education.
But Florida has no mandated comprehensive sexual education curriculum. While students may learn about puberty and the reproductive system in biology class, there is much more to sex, she said.
Evans said that because of the lack of such education, by the time students get to college there are large gaps in their sexual health knowledge. Programs like GatorWell give presentations on topics like STDs, contraception, consent and more.
Sexual health education should not be taboo, she said.
Melissa St. Onge, communications manager for Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida, said the conversation should start at home but continue in class.
Schools in the state should have uniform, fact-based sexual health education, she said.
“There is a variety of information out there and what we need to ensure is that people are getting scientific, medically accurate information,” St. Onge said.
Without access to that information, students don’t necessarily have the information they need to protect themselves, she said.
She said she was not surprised to hear Florida ranked so low on the survey, which included statistics on births to mothers ages 15-19 as well as STD statistics on gonorrhea and syphilis.
To help fill in education gaps, last year Planned Parenthood served over 3,000 students from middle school to college age in the area from Gainesville to Jacksonville.
Services such as a teen outreach program help students to decrease teen pregnancy while increasing academic success, she said.
“Unfortunately those programs can’t touch every single student,” Onge said. “And that’s why it’s really important that we implement this in our schools.”
Those programs, while comprehensive, should be age appropriate, she said.
If the state mandated sexual health education in schools, the picture would be different, she said.
Shirley Lane, executive director of A Woman’s Answer Medical Center, said the conversation should center around pregnant women and fathers.
The center’s clients range in age from 13 to 42 years old, she said. It offers pregnancy testing and counseling, but does not offer testing for sexually transmitted infections.
Florida is one of a number of states that provides funding to pregnancy centers, she said.
By Brandon Larrabee
TALLAHASSEE — In the months before gunfire erupted at an Oregon community college in a mass shooting that killed nine people and the gunman, Floridians were deeply skeptical of proposals that would allow students to carry concealed weapons on campus, according to a survey released this week by the University of South Florida.
The USF-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey, taken over the summer, also shows that a majority of Florida adults favor legalizing medical marijuana, though perhaps not in strong enough numbers to adopt an amendment to the state Constitution to allow pharmacological pot.
Almost three-quarters of Floridians — 73 percent — oppose allowing students with concealed-weapons permits to carry guns on campus, according to the survey. The poll was based on 1,251 interviews conducted from July 30 to Aug. 16 and has a margin of error of 2.77 percentage points.
The results were weighted to account for characteristics like race and gender.
Outside of support for permitting law-enforcement officers to wear body cameras, the finding on firearms on campus marked the strongest percentage in agreement among people surveyed on 16 issues.
“Clearly, this is one of the ones where there’s huge consensus comparatively,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at USF.
Lawmakers on both sides of the state Capitol have moved forward with bills (SB 68 and HB 4001) to allow firearms on campus. Proponents argue that the proposals would make colleges safer, while opponents question the need to allow weapons in the already stress-filled college environment.
MacManus said it seems unlikely that last week’s shootings at Umpqua Community College in Oregon would lead to shifts in support or opposition for the guns-on-campus idea.
“It probably wouldn’t change much, again, because of the ideological disposition in who supports each side of this,” she said.
Another hot-button issue with widespread agreement in Florida is backing for allowing state residents to use marijuana for medical purposes. A total of 55 percent of people surveyed support the idea, according to the poll. Adding an amendment to the state Constitution would require the support of 60 percent of Florida voters; the survey was not limited to registered voters.
The survey did show an increase in support for medical marijuana of 5 percentage points from a year ago. Other polls had shown higher figures in the run-up to a 2014 vote on medical marijuana before support seemed to fade. The ballot initiative ended up with 58 percent of the vote, just short of the 60 percent threshold.
A group the spearheaded the 2014 proposal is seeking to get a medical-marijuana initiative on the November 2016 ballot. MacManus said it was too early to tell whether the support could once again lag as a vote draws closer. She noted that supporters of the medical marijuana amendment have tweaked the proposal to address some of the concerns raised by critics last year.
“We do know that last time the consequence of better advertising by one side or another probably resulted in the defeat of the amendment,” MacManus said.
Other areas of agreement in the poll were support for school choice programs and stronger environmental rules and opposition to collecting sales taxes on online purchases or giving “more rights and assistance to undocumented immigrants.”
The survey also shows some issues on which Floridians remain undecided. The state is almost evenly split among those who think implementing Common Core educational standards in public schools would be a step in the right direction, think it would be a bad idea and have no opinion or don’t know.
Pluralities oppose repealing the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law; allowing law enforcement agencies to use drones; permitting more casino gambling; approving a law to allow transgender people to use whatever restroom they choose; and repealing the death penalty. But in all five of those cases, 27 percent or more of the people surveyed said they didn’t have an opinion or didn’t know whether they supported those issues.
And while 44 percent of Floridians support taking federal funding to expand the state’s Medicaid program, 33 percent oppose the idea and 23 percent don’t have an opinion.
Fire stations across the nation want people to hear the beep before they smell the smoke.
That’s why, for National Fire Prevention Week this year, fire departments are emphasizing the importance of working smoke alarms. The theme this year is: “Hear the beep where you sleep. Every bedroom needs a working smoke alarm!”
“It is very important you know how to react when you hear the sound [of a smoke detector],” said Ashley Lopez, spokeswoman for Ocala Fire and Rescue.
“You should always treat every alarm as an emergency, despite the fact of not seeing smoke or not smelling any foul odors. You should always have your family prepared for the worst.”
To that end, OFR will bring smoke detectors to teach children how to recognize the alarm, and will stress the importance of having working smoke alarms in every room in the house, Lopez said.
Having the alarms are the first line of defense against house fires, said Stephen Hesson, Gainesville Fire Rescue’s interim assistant chief.
A study done by the National Fire Protection Agency issued last month showed that between 2009 and 2013, an average of 940 fire deaths per year occurred in homes with no smoke alarms. An additional 510 people per year were fatally injured in homes that had smoke alarms that failed to operate. Power source problems were the leading cause of smoke alarm failures.
A second study performed by the NFPA, also issued last month, reported that half of home fire deaths occur between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., when most people are sleeping.
Throughout this week, GFR will hold two large community events to promote fire safety, as well as smaller presentations, Hesson said.
“It’s quite a bit busier than the typical week for public information,” he said. “[The events are] a venue for delivering our fire safety methods to the community to give citizens the information they need to protect themselves and the community.”
The first event, GFR’s 9th annual Screaming for Safety, will be held Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. at Kiwanis Safety City, 1025 NE 13th St. This event will feature trick-or-treating, different safety-related stations and a costume contest at 6 p.m.
On Saturday, GFR will hold its Family Safety Expo at Station 3, 900 N. Waldo Road, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. This event, suitable for kids of all ages, will allow attendees to tour the fire engine, spray the fire hose, take part in demonstrations and more.
Lopez said the OFR will celebrate fire prevention throughout the entire month of October, with the nationwide emphasis being put on this week. The department is pushing the same message as the NFPA.
Lopez said there are 31 events scheduled for this month, most of which involve visiting schools and getting children excited about fire safety and prevention. The team also offers presentations to anyone who reaches out from the community.
Lopez said although the fire department is always ready to respond to an emergency, it is better to never have to respond at all.
“In the past, firefighters were just waiting for a call,” Lopez said. “Now, we’re trying to prevent those calls.”