TAMPA BAY TIMES— Allowing gun owners with concealed-weapons permits to carry their sidearms openly would endanger police and bystanders, scare tourists and undermine Florida's business climate, local officials said Monday.
Ward said open carry would create confusion for officers who would go into chaotic scenes and would have to make split-second, life-and-death decisions about which openly armed person is a good guy and which isn't.
He was joined by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober, a Republican, and the League of Women Voters.
Buckhorn said the bills are symptomatic of a Legislature "kowtowing" to "the needs and concerns of the NRA" but that cares "a whole lot less about the needs and concerns of everyday Floridians."
"A solution in search of a problem," he said. "This legislation needs to be defeated. It's totally unnecessary, it is totally uncalled for, and I think it puts a lot of us and our economy at risk."
The League of Women Voters' Patricia Brigham said the average holder of a concealed-weapons permit does not have the kind of training that law enforcement officers get, and there's been no public outcry for an open-carry law.
"These bills did not spring from the grass roots," but are "top-down proposals from the gun lobby and their surrogates in the Legislature," she said.
"One hundred million tourists visit Florida each year," said Brigham, who chairs the league's gun safety committee. "What will the economic impact be when visitors see men and women walking down International Drive in Orlando or along Tampa's Riverwalk with guns in their hands or their waistbands? Is this the kind of message that we want to send to our visitors — that people aren't safe without exhibiting firearms in our state?"
While some supporters have said an open-carry law is needed because gun owner with a concealed-weapons permit might be charged under existing law if they inadvertently displayed a concealed firearm — for example, if a gust of wind blew open a permit holder's jacket — Ober said Florida already has an improper display statute on the books, and it wouldn't lead to someone being arrested for having their gun exposed in those circumstances. He and Ward said they knew of no such cases locally.
"In the law, we call that a red herring," Ober said of the accidental display argument. "From a prosecutor's perspective, I don't buy it."
State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who sponsored the House bill, could not be reached for comment.
But Gaetz has defended the legislation, saying it "does not increase the number of people who can carry weapons and it does not in any way alter the places where a person can carry a firearm or weapon."
"It will enhance the liberty interests of our citizens, and it will ensure that we have safe communities," Gaetz told the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee before the start of the current legislative session.
At that hearing, Gaetz stopped short of predicting that passing the bill would lower Florida's crime rate, saying many factors "impact our crime rate."
"But 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 that are maintained by the (U.S.) Department of Justice," he said.
Gaetz said violent crime was 23 percent lower in states that allow open-carry than in those that don't.
PolitiFact Florida rated his claim Half-True, characterizing it as a misleading snapshot based on a single year's worth of data comparing states with different forms of open-carry laws on their books and, an expert said, different rates of crime before the laws took place.
Contact Richard Danielson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.