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Florida may issue gun licenses with incomplete background checks

TALLAHASSEE -- State lawmakers want to rewrite Florida's concealed weapons law so that people can get gun licenses even when criminal background checks are incomplete.

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Steve Bousquet
, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, Tampa Bay Times

TALLAHASSEE -- State lawmakers want to rewrite Florida's concealed weapons law so that people can get gun licenses even when criminal background checks are incomplete.

The change is being sought by Adam Putnam, the state's elected agriculture commissioner and a Republican candidate for governor who has emphasized support for gun rights as a way to gain favor with GOP primary voters.

The provision is near the very end of a 114-page bill that deals with routine business involving livestock, telephone solicitations, liquefied gas and oyster harvesting.

A bill sponsor, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said Putnam asked for the change.

"Obviously, we're not trying to make an easier path for anyone who shouldn't have a concealed weapons permit," Stargel said. "Nobody wants anyone who shouldn't have one to have one."

Supporters of gun restrictions, however, say the change is dangerous to the public in a state where nearly half a million people applied for gun permits last year alone.

"It's extremely dangerous to allow people who don't have completely clean background checks to get a permit," said Patti Brigham of the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.

Jacksonville lawyer Eric Friday, who represents the pro-gun group Florida Carry, called the change long overdue.

"We're talking about a fundamental right, and the state of Florida doesn't get to deny someone's rights indefinitely," Friday said.

In rare cases -- less than 1 percent of all applicants, or about 2,400 last year, Putnam's office says -- applications are denied because background checks cannot fully prove a person's history, such as a criminal offense that may have been dismissed decades ago or proof of probation served.

Putnam has made his support for gun rights a centerpiece of his campaign to succeed Gov. Rick Scott, and his agency also oversees consumer services and issues concealed weapons permits to adults who pass a criminal background check.

After announcing his bid for governor last year, Putnam emphasized his pro-gun credentials by declaring on Twitter that he was a "proud NRA sellout."

Putnam also has promoted partnerships with Florida's county tax collectors, who accept gun permit applications and will soon be fingerprinting applicants to speed up the applications process.

Florida has more than 20 million residents and has more than 1.8 million concealed weapons license holders.

According to Putnam's website, the agency issued or renewed 442,000 licenses in the fiscal year that ended June 30. The average wait time for a new license is about 50 to 55 days.

The House version of the bill (HB 553) sailed through the House Commerce Committee on Thursday and now awaits a floor vote by the full House.

A few Democrats raised questions about why people whose criminal histories haven't been fully verified would be entitled to carry a concealed weapon.

The change is on page 102 of a 114-page bill that was voted on publicly Thursday for the third time.

The House version is sponsored by Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia, who gave this example of the need for the change: An 87-year-old man who was charged with a crime 65 years ago and is an honorably discharged veteran but can't locate paperwork proving how his case was resolved.

"We're effectively trampling on his Second Amendment rights," Raburn said, "only because some person along the way lost a piece of paper."

Under the change, 90 days after the state received a concealed weapons license application, the Department of Agriculture would have to issue a license, even "if the department has not acquired final disposition or proof of restoration of civil and firearm rights, or confirmation that clarifying records are not available."

The bill says the license would be "immediately suspended" if disqualifying information is found later.

Stephanie Owens of the League of Women Voters of Florida told lawmakers the change makes it easier for criminals to get gun licenses in Florida.

"It opens the door for criminals to acquire a permit due to an incomplete background check. This is dangerous language and should be stricken from the bill," Owens testified. "The fact that this language is buried so deeply is not an example of transparent democracy."

Thursday was the fifth time the bills were heard in legislative meetings, and most Commerce Committee members voted in favor of it.

Everyone voted yes except for three Democrats: Reps. Lori Berman, Nick Duran and Sean Shaw.

Shaw, D-Tampa, is running for attorney general. Berman, D-Boynton Beach, is a candidate for an open state Senate seat. Duran is a first-term lawmaker from Miami.

The gun provision could resolve a long-running dispute between Putnam's agency and Florida Carry.

Florida Carry threatened to file a lawsuit against Putnam last year and accused his agency of taking up to a year to search for disqualifying information on gun permit applicants.

"Anyone who has ever been arrested who cannot obtain proof of the disposition of their charges can be denied their right to bear arms," attorney Friday told Putnam's agency last year.

Passage of the bills is assured because they are priorities of Putnam's agency. Every legislative session, state agencies seek passage of "cleanup" bills that affect routine operations.

Putnam's office said the provision would apply only to those applications that would otherwise be suspended because full documentation is not available.

"They (lawmakers) are going to keep pushing this type of thing to expand gun rights, no matter what," Brigham said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.

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