Lawmakers and gun rights advocates are squabbling over who should have control of Florida’s concealed weapons permits. Internal reports from the Agriculture Department and an official review have highlighted problems with the current system.
The state Agriculture Commissioner is currently in charge of processing concealed weapons permit requests.
Commissioner Adam Putnam, a self-described “proud NRA sellout,” has greatly expanded the program under his leadership. Coupled with recent mass shootings, Putnam’s office saw a huge spike in applications, but the influx proved too much for the office to handle.
In June, the Tampa Bay Times reported that for more than a year the state failed to run requests through a national background check database. After reviewing applications processed during that time, Putnam’s office retroactively revoked 310 permits.
This week, the Tampa Bay Times discovered errors were more widespread than previously thought. An Auditor General’s report found Putnam did not disclose information to investigators, gave false information to the public and approved more erroneous licenses even after the problem was discovered.
To incoming Agriculture Commissioner Democrat Nikki Fried, that is a big problem.
"We need to do an audit of the department to figure out exactly what happened, why someone was able to not log in for 13 months, whether that could happen again," said Fried during an interview with Florida Public Radio member station WGCU. "We need to make sure those holes are plugged.”
Fried campaigned on pushing for more gun regulations, and on checking the power of the state’s concealed weapons permit system. Part of the solution, she said, is moving permitting to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“Law enforcement is already so instrumental in the process, and that way you get politics out of this," said Fried. "We saw after the primary that over 300 emails were released between the Department of Agriculture and the NRA lobbyist. Where she had direct influence over policies that were coming out of the Department of Agriculture.”
The Legislature is poised to do just that. Two Democratic senators have filed a bill that would move oversight of concealed weapons permits to FDLE.
"They are the ones who can truly understand the aftermath of weapons getting into the hands of those who should not have them," said Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation), the bill's sponsor. "And they are supposed to, and do, manage and uphold the law.”
Florida NRA Lobbyist Marion Hammer wants control of the program moved to Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. She told the Tampa Bay Times an elected official should oversee the program.
Sen. Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) calls that a Republican power grab.
“When it’s Nikki Fried, the person who was recently elected, is a Democrat," said Stewart. "That’s who would normally take over this responsibility. Now she [Hammer] wants it put into another cabinet member who is a Republican. That cries and shouts out partisanship.”
Meanwhile, Agriculture Commissioner Putnam has defended his department, but he has largely remained silent about the changes to the program.
“Well there’s a lot of opinions about where to move it to – if they move it at all – and I’ll let the Legislature sort that out,” said Putnam.
The Democratic bill faces an uphill battle. The Senate Judiciary committee, which oversees gun legislation, is chaired by Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs). Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) and Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) also sit on the committee. The three are staunch Second Amendment supporters.
Book is confident the evidence speaks for itself.
“The facts are what the facts are," said Book. "The Department of Agriculture under Adam Putnam once allowed a five percent error rate for employees who process concealed carry background checks. That wouldn’t fly under FDLE oversight.”
Book says it is not about limiting access to guns, it is about keeping them out of the hands of dangerous people.