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Why Sheriffs Speak Out On Key Public Safety Issues

April 25, 2014

Over the last few weeks, a number of you have called and written to me asking why the Florida Sheriffs Association (FSA) opposes the bill that would authorize concealed carry of a firearm without a concealed weapons permit during a declared emergency. The short answer is we oppose the bill in its current form, but we would support the bill if some “common sense” amendments were added to ensure public safety.

Sheriffs in Florida strongly support a citizen’s second amendment right to keep and bear arms. They even passed a resolution stating this in 2012. The Sheriffs believe law abiding citizens should be able to have guns in their homes, vehicles and places of business. They believe citizens should be able to engage in sports and recreational activity involving firearms. They also believe that qualified citizens should be able to obtain concealed weapons permits and keep their weapons with them.  In fact, many Sheriffs are members of gun rights groups, like the NRA, and sponsor firearms training programs for area citizens and even host firearms competitions as local fundraisers.

Here in the “Sunshine State” the issue of guns rights is a hotly debated topic and has been for years. The special interest groups staked out their positions long ago and each year they seek bill sponsors to advance their agenda. In fact, this is why they survey, rate and endorse political candidates in the local, state and national elections. To say these groups work hard to elect candidates who will support their agenda would be a real understatement.  This year there were 59 different firearm related bills filed.  That’s a lot of bills to be sure. Thank goodness they put numbers on them so we can keep track of them all.    

The Sheriffs review these bills and amendments and then provide input to the sponsors. The Sheriffs look at these bills from the perspective of the law enforcement officers who must understand and enforce the law and how it will impact the citizens they are sworn to protect.

The Sheriffs have never hesitated to support bills they feel will enhance public safety. However, when they determine a bill is poorly constructed, vague, conflicts with existing law, is unenforceable or worse yet actually diminishes public safety, they provide that information to the bill’s sponsors as well.    

In most cases, the bill sponsors are willing to work with the Sheriffs to amend the bills so we can support them. This is what happened with several bills that were filed this year: stand your ground, guns in public schools, threatened use of force, etc. When we support such bills the gun rights groups remain quiet but if we oppose a bill for “any” reason the story quickly changes. That’s when allegations are made that the Sheriffs don’t support the second amendment.  That’s when the emails go out urging gun owners to call and write their representatives to put pressure on legislators to support the bill and ignore the advice of the Sheriffs.  

The Second Amendment of the US Constitution gives a citizen the right to keep and bear arms as does the Florida Constitution. The courts have interpreted this to mean that the states can place reasonable restrictions on these rights. This is why in some states, citizens are allowed to carry firearms openly or concealed, but in other states they are not. 

The Florida legislature has defined that a citizen can carry a concealed weapon under certain circumstances and they define who can carry, when and where.  That makes Florida a concealed carry permit state. The permit is like a license and not everyone can qualify for the permit and thus some are denied the ability to carry a concealed firearm. About 5% of the population in Florida has actually obtained a CCW permit.

The law in this area has evolved over time and today the Sheriffs feel that we have a system that correctly balances the right of citizens with the need for public safety. But the pressure to expand gun rights is constant which in part helps to explain why so many bills are filed each year. 

When the Sheriffs first read the bill that would authorize concealed carry of a firearm without a permit during the time of declared emergencies they were not sure it was needed. As the main reason for the bill, the proponents stated the police in New Orleans had seized the guns of citizens in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  

While we don’t know what actually happened in New Orleans, we do know this is Florida and we have been through hundreds of emergency evacuations over the years. We could not find one situation where a law abiding citizen was arrested for possession of a firearm and their weapon seized during an evacuation.

In addition, we knew that citizens were not expected to leave their weapons behind when evacuated, since the current Florida law allows transport of firearms by permit and non-permit holders. The only difference was the non-permit holders could not carry concealed. That’s all.

We wondered what problem the bill was actually trying to solving.  What the Sheriffs did know was that suspending our gun laws during such a critical time could create some dangerous situations.  They made the sponsors aware of these concerns and hoped they would understand the issue.

The sponsors however, did not agree with the Sheriffs and refused to allow amendments to the bill that would have clarified who would be authorized to carry a concealed weapon, how long they would be authorized to carry a concealed weapon, and in what areas they would be authorized to carry a concealed weapon, etc. Without answers to such basic questions the law would be practically unenforceable.

As written the bill would authorize people in areas experiencing an emergency to evacuate to any other area of the state and then they would then be allowed to carry concealed firearms during the entire time they remained in the non-emergency area.  However the people who actually lived in the non-emergency area would still be bound by the concealed weapons law. We thought this was an illogical result.

Also, the people who refused to evacuate would be able to carry a concealed weapon while they stayed put. Likewise, people from outside the area affected by the emergency could arm themselves and enter the disaster area, making the environment even more unstable and volatile. In some cases these people will increase the likelihood for accidents and injuries as they will not have the background, testing and training required of regular permit holder.  In addition, there is some question about whether this bill would authorize people to carry concealed in a public shelter that is not a school? All these issues we raised for consideration.

As you can see the bill, as written, certainly creates more questions than it answers and sets the stage for a number of legal challenges and lawsuits and potentially law abiding citizens being arrested for not understanding what the law allows and does not.

At this point it remains to be seen if any amendments will be made but be assured we have submitted proposals to the sponsors that outline what we believe are reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. We are still hopeful that our concerns will be addressed.

So I ask you: what should the Sheriffs do when they are presented with bills that they truly believe will be a nightmare to enforce and will likely reduce public safety?  Should they remain silent or should they let their voices be heard?

I answer by saying the Sheriffs know the primary role of government is to protect its citizens. The Sheriffs take their role as the “chief law enforcement officer of the county” very seriously. The sheriffs understand the political realities of these situations and they are not afraid to speak out for what they believe is RIGHT and will not be intimidated or silenced by anyone or any group. 

In closing, I hope I have provided you with some new insight on this issue so you understand exactly what the Sheriffs are trying to do. I hope that you will see through the disinformation that is being spread and realize that your Sheriffs do in fact support your rights as a citizen in our great state and nation, and it’s them, and their deputies, who are willing to lay down their life to protect you, our communities, and our way of life. I hope that you will continue to support your Sheriff as he/she supports you. 

Thank you and until next time, stay safe!