Ahead of warnings about possible armed protests at Florida’s Capitol in Tallahassee so dire that legislative leaders urged employees to stay away, a surprising oddity emerged: It’s lawful for some citizens to carry guns inside the Capitol.
After last week’s violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol and threatened Congress, the FBI warned law enforcement about possible armed protests at all 50 state Capitols starting Saturday. Florida’s Senate president, Wilton Simpson, called it “very likely” protesters would gather outside the state’s Capitol on Sunday and urged staff to work remotely.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls also urged staff to stay away Sunday. Tallahassee’s mayor said he was aware of reports of potential violence at capitols, but there was no specific threat intelligence related to Florida’s Legislature.
But even in such a politically charged environment, Florida law allows citizens with concealed weapons permits – more than 2.2 million people – to carry guns inside the Capitol. They can walk armed under the Rotunda, roam the corridors, visit lawmakers’ offices or scan the city below from the 22nd-floor observation deck. During the spring legislative sessions, as many as 5,000 people may be inside the Capitol.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s lieutenant governor, attorney general and others also have offices in the Capitol. DeSantis said this week Florida will be ready: “I don’t care why you are doing it. You are not doing it here,” he said. “If there’s any type of disorder we will have the reinforcements there.”
Florida does prohibit people with or without a weapon permit from carrying guns inside legislative or committee meetings. Public attendance in committee meeting rooms is also limited right now due to the coronavirus.
Still, an armed citizen with a permit will be allowed with a loaded gun inside the Capitol after passing through the building’s metal detector and security checkpoint, said Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which oversees the Capitol Police.
The House sergeant at arms, Russell Hosford, reminded newly elected lawmakers just last month that guns may be among them: “You can carry at the Capitol complex with an approved concealed weapons permit,” he said during a training panel on defending lawmakers from shootings in the building. At the same panel, Capitol Police director Mark Glass called it a “blessing” that most Floridians don’t realize they can legally carry loaded guns inside the Capitol, so many don’t even try.
About 20 statehouses across the U.S. allow guns inside, though some states now are reconsidering it. Michigan banned the open carrying of guns within its state Capitol earlier this week. Even with its lenient gun laws, Florida is one of only four states that prohibits the open carrying of guns except during hunting or camping.
In the wake of the deadly assault on the Capitol in Washington, some lawmakers want changes in Florida, too.
“Allowing the general public to bring firearms into a Capitol building is asinine,” said Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, who has already sponsored three new gun-control bills this year. He said he is confident Capitol Police can protect lawmakers.
Another Democrat, Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Winter Park, also endorsed tightening restrictions on guns inside the Capitol, although he acknowledged changes were unlikely. “The fact that people can just walk into my office armed, and that be OK, concerns me,” he said.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said restrictions due to the pandemic have limited public access to the Capitol to those with appointments, and said new security measures being added may include more cameras around the building.
Others bristle over discussions of new gun limits. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said concealed weapons permit holders are some of the least likely people to commit crimes. Permits require a background check, fingerprinting and a $97 fee.
Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Clermont, one of the Legislature’s staunchest gun rights advocates, said he and other state lawmakers carry their own concealed guns in the Capitol. He said he supports openly carrying guns in the Capitol and other government buildings. This year Sabatini has again proposed allowing people to carry guns on college campuses.
Sabatini, who missed some committee meetings this week because he was in quarantine from a COVID-19 exposure, said he sometimes carries his gun inside legislative meetings – even though that would be explicitly prohibited under state law. A reporter called him back to be sure there was no misunderstanding.
“I carry everywhere I go,” Sabatini said. He said he has no special dispensation to carry a gun during legislative meetings.
Hosford, the sergeant at arms, declined to discuss whether or how lawmakers might be exempt from Florida’s laws prohibiting guns inside legislative or committee meetings.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.