More concealed weapon license applications were denied during the first three years of Nikki Fried’s tenure as Florida’s Democratic Agriculture Commissioner than the previous two commissioners combined, data obtained and reviewed by City & State shows.
In part, the jump can be attributed to an increase in applications in recent years. But the department’s Division of Licensing denial rate on applications is more than two times greater than under her immediate predecessor, Republican Adam Putnam. In Florida, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is charged with licensing concealed weapons as well as private investigators and security services.
City & State filed a public records request to the department for information on concealed weapon or firearm applications and dispositions by county. From July 2019 to June 2022, Fried’s department had denied about 46,500 of the 1.13 million concealed weapon license applications and requests for renewals it received. On the other hand, about 44,000 were turned down of the roughly 3.2 million applications received during the two previous agriculture commissioners, Putnam and Charles Bronson, also a Republican. That was from July 2002 to June 2018.
The denial rate under Fried – 4% – also surpasses the two previous office holders. About 1.6% of applications were denied during the seven full years data collected during Putnam’s tenure, and slightly less than 1% were denied during the nine years of data during Bronson’s time in office.
It’s possible that Fried’s record may stand indefinitely: Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has backed passing constitutional carry, which the National Rifle Association defines as “eliminating the need for government permission before a law-abiding individual can exercise their right to bear arms.” And at least one incoming legislative leader, House Speaker-designate Paul Renner, has said he supports permitless carrying of guns.
Erin Moffet, Fried’s strategic communications director, says the increase in denials could be related to an increased number of applicants. One of the years, July 1, 2020-June 30, 2021, saw the most applications in state history, she says – over 360,000 new applications. Moreover, Fried began conducting background checks on all applicants, something her predecessor did not do. Otherwise, the process is the same, Moffet says.
Most denials under Fried were July 1, 2021-June 30, 2022. The department denied 30,921 that year alone, almost more than the total amount during Putnam’s tenure. But the application numbers that year were lower than the totals during Putnam’s final three years. Most of those denials – over 23,000 – were due to incomplete documentation and not failed background checks, according to Moffet.
“Under Commissioner Fried’s leadership, background checks have been completed for all applicants, which was not the case under her predecessor,” Moffet told City & State. “You’ll also note the large backlog from the previous administration that the Division of Licensing under her administration has tackled, lowering the processing time to 10 days for applicants with a clean background check while at the same time facing increasing application numbers.”
Florida’s concealed carry process took a black eye under Putnam when an internal investigation revealed that his staff “failed to review national background checks on tens of thousands of applications for concealed weapons permits,” the Tampa Bay Times reported in 2018. The reason? “The employee in charge of the background checks could not log into the system,” the Times reported. “The problem went unresolved until discovered by another worker in March 2017, meaning that for more than a year applications got approved without the required background check.” Ultimately, 291 wrongly granted licenses had to be revoked, according to reports, and Putnam says there was never a danger to the public’s safety.
“There was a more relaxed approach to the permitting, for how long that was going on, we don't know,” says Patricia Brigham, president of the gun control advocacy group Prevent Gun Violence Florida. “It's not surprising that Commissioner Fried’s office would be very rigorous and watchful in the permitting process.” Fried also is running to be the Democratic nominee challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reelection.
Her director of the Division of Licensing, attorney Stephen Hurm, is married to Democratic former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018, losing the Democratic nomination to Andrew Gillum. Hurm has a long list of law enforcement bona fides: He’s been a criminology researcher at Florida State University, a major at the Leon County’s Sheriff’s Office, general counsel of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, a captain and legal advisor at the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, a regional legal advisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and he was an assistant prosecutor in the Fifth Judicial Circuit for Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.
State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, who has previously backed constitutional carry legislation and is a vocal critic of Fried, says he thinks the increase and the background check messaging from her department comes from two reasons: Her attempts to politically posture to her base amid her run for governor and a belief in fewer guns in society. “She doesn't believe in the Second Amendment and thinks it's her job to take away the rights of Floridians, especially anybody who she believes to be a threat to society,” says Sabatini, a Howie-in-the-Hills Republican who is running for Congress this year.
Fried’s increased rate of denial and speed-up on processing applications was met with resistance from DeSantis, adding to the list of issues the two elected officials have butted heads on. The governor vetoed a budget request from Fried for 83 positions to process and review concealed carry applications. Fried then blasted the veto in early June, saying it will hinder her job of keeping concealed weapons out of the hands of ineligible applicants.
At the same time, constitutional carry has become popular, especially in red states. Twenty-five states – all except Maine with Republican governors – have laws allowing the practice or plan to allow it in the near future. Alabama, Georgia, Indiana and Ohio passed constitutional carry legislation this year.
Brigham, whose organization opposes constitutional carry, says that the title is a misnomer. She refers to it as permitless carry. “There's no such thing, there's nothing in the Constitution that gives you the right to carry a gun in public,” she says. “What this is, is carrying without a license or a permit.” She adds that her organization opposes constitutional carry because it increases gun violence, citing data that found gun homicides increased in the states where it is passed.
According to one analysis of federal data, states that passed constitutional carry laws saw a 22% increase in gun homicides in the three years after it was passed, compared to a 10% increase nationally. “When you have permitless carry, that means you're going to have people walking around with concealed weapons that should have no business having them,” Brigham says. “It’s setting up the state to fail when it comes to preventing gun violence, because permitless carry will not prevent more gun violence, it will only add to it.”
But Sabatini criticized Republican state lawmakers for not passing it sooner. He says the only reason it is going to pass is because Republican lawmakers are fearful of DeSantis, who supports it. “Their intention was to never pass it. But because they're cowards, it's opened up an avenue for the governor to get it done,” Sabatini says. “The governor is really the hero here and the grassroots I'm aligned with are the heroes too.”