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Open-Carry Gun Bill Bangs Into Business Concerns

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.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.