Florida House approves 'open carry' expansion of gun rights

Florida could be the next state to allow gun owners to openly carry their firearms, following Texas (above), which passed the law on Jan 1, 2016.
Florida could be the next state to allow gun owners to openly carry their firearms, following Texas (above), which passed the law on Jan 1, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

FLORIDA (REUTERS) - Two bills that would allow Florida gun owners to openly carry their firearms passed the state House of Representatives on Wednesday but the proposals face long odds of becoming law.

The Republican-controlled chamber voted 80-38, along party lines, to allow for so-called "open carry" by Florida's 1.5 million concealed weapon permit holders. Businesses and tourist attractions, such as the state's theme parks, could forbid guns.

A separate bill, approved 80-37, would allow permit holders to carry weapons on college campuses, where they are currently banned.

The proposals come as President Barack Obama and others push to limit access to guns after a string of mass shootings. The United States Constitution's 2nd Amendment gives Americans the right to have arms, a right that is fiercely defended.

While Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature, the measures face long odds in the Florida Senate because key legislators have resisted bringing the bills forward.

Both are backed by the National Rifle Association, America's powerful gun lobby.

Florida is one of only five states that does not allow for open carry, said Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, the main sponsor of the "open carry" bill.

He added that the gun owners go through background checks to obtain concealed weapon permits.

"Is there any evidence that in the 45 states that allow open carry, there is this 'Wild, Wild West' circumstance?" asked Gaetz, who is from the Florida Panhandle. "There is none."

Democrats opposed the bill, with black legislators in particular deriding it as a threat to urban communities.

The open carry measure was opposed by many state sheriffs due to fears of creating confusion, alarming tourists and other concerns. University police and campus presidents have also opposed the bill due to security concerns.

Still, a co-sponsor the campus-related bill described fending off a sexual assault with her pistol while a college student. Now teaching at a community college, the legislator said she should be able to carry her concealed weapon on campus.

"I want the right to defend myself, if it ever comes to that," said Representative Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Democrat from Tallahassee.

Opponents countered it would make campuses more dangerous. "Books and guns don't mix," said Representative Barbara Watson, a Democrat from Miami Gardens.

In addition to Florida, California, New York, Illinois and South Carolina do not allow open carry for concealed weapon permit holders, according to the National Rifle Association's Florida lobbyist.

Texas enacted a similar law just this year.