No more ‘gun-free zones’ in Florida? Lawmakers float plan to end them

 
BY KRISTEN M. CLARK
 

Concealed guns at Miami Dolphins games, local bars and even voting booths could be commonplace under a sweeping measure introduced this week in the Florida Legislature.

With the recent, tragic history of the Pulse nightclub massacre last June in Orlando and the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting last month, two conservative Republican lawmakers want to do away with all of Florida’s “gun-free zones” — 15 locations in state law where concealed weapons are currently prohibited.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, of Ocala, and Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, of The Villages, have proposed eliminating all state-imposed restrictions on where Florida’s concealed weapons permit-holders can carry their guns — with the goal of allowing businesses, institutions and people to have greater control over their own protection, Hahnfeldt said.

If the proposal (SB 908/HB 803) became law, that would mean concealed guns could be carried in a plethora of places they aren’t allowed now — at Florida’s seaports and in police, sheriff and highway patrol stations; jails and prisons; courthouses; airport passenger terminals; polling places; government and legislative meetings; public K-12 schools; public college and university campuses; school, college and professional athletic events; career centers; and bars and other establishments that serve alcohol.

Hahnfeldt said the only location restrictions that would remain intact would be those imposed by federal law, which the state cannot control. Private property-owners could still choose to prohibit concealed guns.

More than 1.7 million people have concealed weapons permits in Florida, the most of any state.

“Gun-free zones have been a failure,” Hahnfeldt said, adding that the restrictions have made “businesses more susceptible to harm and damage by an ill-intended perpetrator.” (Gun violence experts say research doesn’t support the premise that mass shooters target gun-free zones.)

“This gives these businesses and institutions an opportunity to better protect themselves, their place of business, their employees and their guests in the event of an unfortunate incident,” Hahnfeldt said, “so that maybe the next Pulse, the next Fort Lauderdale ... may not happen.”

Baxley said the measure “tests the appetite for legislators to eliminate the illusion called gun-free zones.”

“Perpetrators of violence do not care what your rules are and are armed,” he said in a text message. “This bill eliminates the sterile target we have created with noble intentions.”

The legislation drew swift rebuke from the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence — more than 120 local, state and national groups that banded together after the Pulse shooting.

“These gun-happy legislators have gone too far. They are endangering the public, not protecting it,” Patti Brigham, coalition co-chair and vice president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said in a statement. “The idea of allowing permit-holders to take their guns into bars is absurd and incredibly dangerous. And just why would we want permit-holders to take guns into polling places?”

It’s not clear whether Baxley’s and Hahnfeldt’s proposal will be considered in the legislative session that begins March 7. The bills were filed Monday and haven’t been assigned to Senate and House committees for review yet.

But theirs isn’t the first sweeping gun proposal to incense gun-control and gun-safety advocates this year.

Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube had proposed a similarly broad measure (SB 140) to eliminate some of the state’s gun-free zones and to allow open carry by concealed weapons permit-holders. But he’s since changed strategies on that, saying “it’s probably better to attack it piece by piece.”

While Steube hasn’t yet withdrawn SB 140, he has filed at least seven narrowly tailored bills that include specific components of his original proposal, including open carry.

At least 18 gun-related measures have been filed for the Republican-led Legislature to consider this spring — many of which expand where and how concealed weapons permit-holders can carry in Florida. Democrats also have filed several bills that seek to improve the state’s gun safety laws and restrict the sale and ownership of assault-style weapons.

Only one of the gun bills has been considered so far: a proposal to shift the burden of proof in pretrial hearings for Stand Your Ground cases. The bill (SB 128) sailed through two committee hearings in the Senate and is the first bill from either chamber that’s ready for a floor vote once session begins.