KISSIMMEE — Don’t Be a Sitting Duck is in the business of teaching Floridians how to safely carry a concealed handgun.
The Kissimmee firearms academy offers a four-hour training session required by state law to carry a loaded gun in public. For owner and firearms instructor Bryan Villella, that just makes sense.
“It is our right to be able to protect ourselves,” Villella said. “To require a level of education surrounding that, I don’t see as a bad thing.”
But what Villella considers a reasonable safeguard, gun rights advocate Luis Valdes sees as a government burden on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.
He’s been pushing Florida lawmakers to pass what he and other supporters call “constitutional carry,” which would allow lawful gun owners to carry a weapon without training or a permit. Other states across the country have passed permitless carry laws in recent years.
“Every place that has restrictive gun laws, criminals don’t follow it,” said Valdes, Florida director of Gun Owners of America. “So the idea that permitting stops criminals is ludicrous because only the law-abiding follow the laws. So why restrict the law-abiding from an inalienable right?”
Permitless carry legislation appears poised to pass in Florida next year, erasing a state law that has been in place for more than 30 years. Gov. Ron DeSantis is backing the idea, and House Speaker Paul Renner is promising to act.
Getting a concealed weapons permit requires jumping through some hoops in Florida. Gun owners must be at least 21 years old, pass a background check, complete a basic firearms training course and “demonstrate competency with a firearm.”
It costs about $97 to $119 in fees to obtain the permit. Training courses vary from about $30 to $100. It takes about 50 to 55 days to process a concealed carry application, according to state officials.
About half a dozen students spent their Tuesday morning at Don’t Be a Sitting Duck learning about Florida’s gun laws and how to safely handle a gun. The firearm academy’s front door proclaimed the services offered: “Firearm sales. Concealed courses. Security training. American s—!”
The training included a target-shooting exercise needed to meet the state requirement that permit holders “demonstrate competency with a firearm.”
Students showed they could properly handle a handgun, level it at a paper cutout of an armed assailant and fire a simulated round.
Sean Doyle, 34, said he didn’t view Florida’s requirements as overly burdensome. He moved recently from Connecticut to Kissimmee and was taking the concealed-carry class along with his wife.
“If you can afford a firearm, you can afford the class,” Doyle said.
But supporters of permitless carry say state requirements make it harder for people to protect themselves. They contend gun owners will still seek training voluntarily.
“That’s a barrier to entry for lower-class people or for beginners even,” said Brenden Boudreau, director of field operations for the National Association for Gun Rights. “When we get rid of the permit requirement, we actually see more people seeking training and more people practicing their right to keep and bear arms, which is a deterrent against criminals.”
But Villella said he doesn’t think most people will voluntarily sign up for his class. He estimates about 70% to 80% of his business involves students applying for concealed-weapons permits. Some first-time gun owners haven’t even shot through an entire box of ammunition at a firing range, he said.
“Unfortunately, firearms are surrounded by a lot by ego,” Villella said. “Everyone thinks they know how to do it.”
Permitless carry will take Florida down a dangerous path and reverse progress Florida lawmakers made after the Parkland high school shooting in 2018, said Gay Valimont, volunteer state legislative lead with Moms Demand Action, a group advocating for stronger gun laws.
“We’re home to some of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history,” Valimont said. “The last thing Florida needs to do is loosen gun laws. The permitting system is like the last line of defense for someone to carry a firearm in public. It’s reckless, and it’s dangerous.”
The legislation would make it easier for criminals to carry guns in public and present challenges for law enforcement officers, who have opposed the legislation in other states, she said.
“We know that no law can stop all dangerous behavior,” Valimont said. “But why would we make it easier for criminals to feel more comfortable carrying in public, knowing they can carry freely, no questions asked?”
Floridians who purchase a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer would still need to undergo background checks. Federal and state law doesn’t require background checks, though, if a private seller is not a licensed dealer.
Valimont’s group pointed to studies showing firearm-related crime increased in states that loosened regulations on guns in public. Supporters of permitless carry have drawn the opposite conclusion and cite the work of pro-gun researcher John R. Lott Jr.
The details of Florida’s legislation are unclear as a bill has yet to be filed for the 2023 session.
Florida is one of three states that generally ban the open carry of firearms with the exception of carrying a gun while fishing, hunting or camping.
DeSantis hasn’t said whether he supports allowing the open carry of firearms. Legislative leaders have also not provided those details.
Even with permitless carry, business owners would retain the ability to decide whether to allow firearms on their premises, Valdes said.
Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, told a radio show host in May that her district is split and suggested putting the issue to a voter referendum. Coastal residents are concerned about people walking around with weapons in a “tourist destination,” while residents living in the inland rural part of her district tend to favor it, she said.
Valdes thinks permitless carry would make Floridians safer.
“Criminals are preying on suspected targets,” Valdes said. “If you have constitutional carry, they don’t know if their target is armed or not. Think of it like the lion in the plains of Africa on the Serengeti. They don’t know which critter out in the herd is going to kick them in the jaw.”
Florida has regulated the carrying of concealed weapons for decades. The state constitution reads, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms in defense of themselves and of the lawful authority of the state shall not be infringed, except that the manner of bearing arms may be regulated by law.”
Before 1987, each county decided the rules for issuing concealed weapons permits, and some jurisdictions had stricter regulations than current standards.
Broward County residents had to show a need for carrying a gun, such as working in a dangerous occupation. The local police chief had to agree, along with a board of police chiefs and a special hearing officer. Then the application went to the County Commission for a final review, according to a 1986 Miami Herald article.
Only 32 people had licenses to carry a concealed weapon in Broward County, based on press reports, at a time when the county’s population surpassed 1 million.
The following year, lawmakers put the state in charge of concealed weapon permits and made Florida a “shall issue” state, meaning applicants didn’t have to prove a special need to carry a weapon.
Since then, the number of concealed carry permits has exploded in Florida, going from 32,814 in 1988 to more than 2.5 million this year.
The U.S. Supreme Court shook up the issue this year when it struck down a New York gun law and ruled that Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense.
The issue will play out with presidential politics in the background. DeSantis, widely rumored to be 2024 GOP White House contender, is under immense pressure from gun rights supporters to act on permitless carry.
Other GOP governors have signed permitless carry laws recently, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey. Twenty-five states have now enacted permitless carry.
Valimont suspects DeSantis’ presidential ambitions will play into the issue.
“Why is he making a stand on this now? He is pandering to the extremist that wants this open carry because he wants their vote for president,” she said. “That’s what I personally make of it.”
Gun rights supporters will be closely watching what happens, Valdes said.
“We are relentless in holding our elected officials accountable, whether they’re Republican or Democratic, doesn’t matter,” he said. “The basis of our entire system of government is: ‘We the People hold the power, and our lawmakers work for us.’ They represent us. It’s not the other way around.”
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