Is Florida's permitless carry bill a "bait and switch"?

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

The attempts by Florida Democrats to attach poison pill amendments to the permitless carry legislation heard in a state House committee on Tuesday all failed on voice votes, but there are still plenty of gun owners and Second Amendment activists in the state who aren’t happy with the current language of HB 543.

Some of them are even accusing Republican lawmakers of pulling a bait-and-switch on the issue, arguing that a true “Constitutional carry” bill would also end the state’s current prohibition on open carry, unlike HB 543, which keeps the open carry prohibition in place while allowing for legal gun owners to carry concealed without the need for a government-issued permission slip.

On Tuesday, those Second Amendment advocates had the chance to make their case, but for now the bill remains unchanged.

Those who showed up to testify about the measure and to watch lawmakers debate were of three minds.

Gun rights groups like the NRA and law enforcement supported repeal of what they deride as a “government permission slip” to exercise what is a God-given right to self-defense enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Nearly half of the 44 people who spoke in support cited self-defense as one of their reasons they want to be able to carry a firearm.

Then there were the opponents, like Luis Valdes of Havanna, who called the measure a watered-down concealed carry law.

Valdes, the executive director [actually, the Florida state director- ed] of Gun Owners of America, and about 20 others, said Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged to sign a “constitutional carry” proposal – the right to bear arms in public without government interference – and HB 543 is not what was promised.

“Florida under a Republican supermajority state not advancing open carry is a travesty to gun owners especially for the fact that the open carry ban was passed in 1987 because of (former Miami-Dade State Attorney) Janet Reno, one of the state’s most anti-gun Democrats,” said Valdes.

Valdes wasn’t alone in objecting to the lack of an open carry provision, with other gun owners decrying the current language of HB 543.

“ ‘Tuck it under here,’ described Alachua County resident Chris Rose, of the current way concealed carry works.

“That’s not constitutional carry. That’s baiting and switching. Ya’ll are lying to your constituents.”

“We want constitutional carry now, we want what the other half of the country has, there’s about to be a 26th state [and] we’re [Florida] is about to be a minority]. I am not a second-class citizen to the rest of America.”

Philosophically, I think Valdes, Rose, and the other gun owners who say HB 543 could be stronger are right. As a resident of Virginia, I and other legal gun owners over the age of 18 can openly carry my firearm without a concealed carry license, and the law works perfectly fine here.

But Rose is incorrect in assuming that all of the 25 states that have adopted permitless or Constitutional Carry laws have the same statute in question. Many of them have their own variations on the idea; including only allowing for residents to carry without a license, or requiring a concealed carry license in order to carry in places that are otherwise off-limits. Neither of those provisions are included in HB 543, which arguably makes the bill better (at least in some respects) than some of the permitless carry laws in place in 25 other states.

The sheriff’s association’s endorsement of the bill isn’t exactly a boost for it for people like Bob White—who is opposed to the measure because it does not go far enough. White also worries Republicans will try to save face and promote the bill as something it isn’t.

“There are those who will follow me who will espouse the conventional wisdom that while this doesn’t give us all that we want, it’s at least a step in the right direction…the problem with conventional wisdom is that it is not always correct,” he said.

But this is a step in the right direction, and it’s hard to argue otherwise, even if the bill isn’t as strong as it could be. Last year permitless carry didn’t even get a hearing in the Florida legislature. In fact, the bill introduced by state Rep. Anthony Sabatini didn’t manage to pick up any co-sponsors. The fact that this year permitless carry appears poised to pass is a good thing and a positive development, and if the bill becomes law then gun owners can continue lobbying to remove the state’s ridiculous prohibition on open carry while they’re still able to carry concealed without a license.

Gun owners in Florida should absolutely keep lobbying lawmakers to add open carry to the current language of HB 543, but even if they’re not successful passage of this bill would be a major improvement over the status quo. Politics is messy, and you can’t let perfect be the enemy of good…. at least not if you want to actually make progress in our decades-long fight to protect and strengthen our fundamental right to keep and bear arms.