Bill Cotterell: Is 'constitutional carry' good policy – or great politics?

The Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis will probably OK a bill this year to allow Floridians to carry a gun without a permit. Whether we need it is another matter.

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

Does anyone in Florida have a hard time getting a gun, or carrying one? 

Obviously the criminals don’t. They’ll buy or steal guns, regardless of any laws we enact. That’s why they’re called criminals.

But for law-abiding, everyday citizens ... whether we call it Second Amendment rights or home defense, hasn’t the Florida Legislature made it quick and easy enough for legitimate gun owners to protect themselves? Or for hunters and target shooters to pursue their hobbies?

Shortly after they convene at the Capitol on March 7, the Republican-controlled Legislature probably will send Gov. Ron DeSantis something called “constitutional carry.” And he has said he’ll sign such a law.

At one level, it means the Old West without the horses.

For more than 30 years, we’ve had the licensed carrying of concealed weapons. Some legislators, mainly Democrats, warned of quick-trigger tragedies — spats that might end with a punch in the nose becoming homicides — but that hasn’t happened much more than it did before the state OK'd concealed carry.

As usual, it wasn’t the legally licensed gun-toters who caused problems, it was the criminals who were well-armed long before the law was changed. And they weren’t supposed to have a hidden Glock in their belts, even with the amended law.

So now, the governor has a supermajority of Republicans in both chambers of the Legislature and they want to let us go around armed, without the licensing now required from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

There wouldn’t be any minimum hours of training required, either, although that’s still a good idea. We don’t let people drive cars without demonstrating basic competency. But then the Founders weren’t thinking about cars when they wrote the Second Amendment.

On paper or in theory, “constitutional carry” makes sense. The safety issue is who carries a gun, not how they carry it.

And besides, you don’t need a state license to exercise your First Amendment right of free speech or religion. The constitutional guarantee against self-incrimination doesn’t require a permit. So why should the state regulate the right “to keep and bear arms?”

Well, because that other stuff in the Constitution doesn’t kill people. And a lot of other rights are regulated by law. DeSantis and legislative Republicans seem to take a rather whimsical view of free speech in public classrooms, and women’s privacy in gynecologists’ offices.

With the constitutional-carry law, Florida will get a lot of bad publicity just for being Florida. When the current concealed-weapon law passed in 1987, all the networks came to Tallahassee and did stories — perhaps unaware that Georgia had passed the same law years earlier, with little notice. Sports Illustrated headlined the FSU-Miami game that year “Shootout in the Gunshine State,” straining to wring the gun law into its football coverage.

Georgia also has constitutional carry and a similar law just took effect in Alabama. Several states have various versions of it. But DeSantis has made Florida a ready reference point for right-wing legislation nationally.

It will be dangerous for law enforcement, too, when a cop rolls up on a crime scene and four or five people have guns. How does the officer instantly determine which is the bad guy (or guys)?

Obviously, constitutional carry has a strong political appeal to the Republican Party, particularly the farthest-right segment of the GOP. In other words, the voters DeSantis needs most in his continuing campaign to position himself as the responsible conservative alternative to Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential race.

We don’t really need constitutional carry, but that’s not the point. Enacting it appeals to a large and highly motivated segment of conservative Republican voters. And it fits well with the governor’s rhetoric about maintaining “the free state of Florida.” 

And coming off the biggest reelection landslide in 40 years, it’s one more chance for DeSantis to show the Democrats how utterly powerless they are in the Legislature — which might be the real reason he’s doing it.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Florida Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He writes a weekly column for City and State. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com

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