Bob Sparks: Hear the gun bills, don’t restrict debate

Tuesday night’s New Hampshire primary election revealed the mood of the electorate of that small state. Polls show that in many of the remaining primary and caucus states, voters in both parties are unhappy with the process of government.

Amendments, show votes, executive orders and other process maneuvers have worn thin. The Florida Legislature offers a more localized example of what is wrong with the process of “making the sausage.”

Florida is deciding (or not deciding) what to do about carrying guns. Currently, qualified Floridians are permitted to carry concealed weapons for a variety of reasons with some exceptions.

One of those exceptions extends to college campuses. Battle lines, so to speak, were drawn months ago.

Those favoring “Campus Carry” include most Republican legislators, Second Amendment groups and individuals favoring gun rights. Opponents include every Democratic legislator except Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasalinda of Tallahassee, college presidents and faculty, as well as law enforcement.

House Bill 4001 sailed through committees and passed that chamber 80-38. The Senate version, Senate Bill 68, cannot get a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Legislature is also discussing whether Florida can join the rest of the country and permit those with concealed weapons permits to openly carry their firearms. House Bill 163 passed that chamber on a party line vote, but its Senate companion also cannot get a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The reason is simple. Committee Chairman Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, refuses to allow debate on either bill.

Those involved in the legislative process, as well as the media and government watchers, all know this happens frequently. A committee chairman or chairwoman has the sole power to determine what will be debated.

Such enormous power is sometimes deployed to protect members from being forced to cast tough votes. Leadership may decide hearing a controversial bill would conflict with other goals, prompting an instruction to keep such legislation bottled up.

If the chair just doesn’t like the bill and provides an explanation why, it is instructive to hear the reasoning. On the open carry bill, Diaz de la Portilla was concerned about legislators inserting amendments.

“I have some serious concerns about open carry in light of what happened in the House last week,” he said on Monday, referring to amendments to the open carry bill approved prior to passage. “Because of those concerns, I’m very, very seriously considering not hearing it at all.”

Voting against amendments in committee or against the bill on the floor apparently is not good enough. This is just another example of the “establishment” establishing the rules that regular people do not understand.

The actions of Diaz de la Portilla are not the disease, they are the symptom. An issue of this magnitude needs a full and open debate.

Proponents would argue that 43 states permit open carry of “long guns and hand guns.” Among those, 26 do not require a license.

Eight of those 43 states recently passed their laws to become effective Jan. 1, 2016. Florida is bucking the trend. Liberal bastions such as Vermont, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Maryland have open carry laws.

Florida is one of only four states that statutorily prohibit open carry under any circumstance. We share a bond with the likes of the District of Columbia, Illinois and New York.

Proponents would further argue both bills authorize only those registered to carry a firearm. This means the bills would cover only law-abiding citizens who have already gone through background checks. Criminals do not care about the law.

Opponents could counter the claim that the open carry bill “enhances public safety.” Debate why it does not.

“This open carry bill will not be a positive thing for many of our African-American men,” said Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville. Jones and some of her colleagues in the House and Senate have reasons why they believe that way. Let’s hear them.

College presidents, faculty and law enforcement are almost universally against campus carry. They have some reasonable arguments.

So do campus rape victims. What about those who were able to prevent being raped because they had a firearm off campus? We should want to hear all sides in such an important matter of public policy.

The open carry bill contains provisions that might be challenged in court, according to Senate staff analysts. What better place than the Judiciary Committee to discuss these issues and consider amendments?

Gun bills are not the only ones withering on the legislative vine. For example, a highly discussed LGBT rights bill is not getting a hearing in the House

Whatever the issue, people are tired of the political games, no matter where they are played.


Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at [email protected] and Twitter @BobSparksFL.

One comment

  • Barry Mauer

    February 13, 2016 at 9:16 am

    What an amazingly disingenuous argument! There is little debate that would stop these bills from becoming law given the Republican supermajorities. Debate would only be relevant if the vast majority of Republican legislators weren’t immune to evidence and reason. To say the debate hasn’t been heard so far is absurd. It is evident that Bob Sparks has chosen to hear what he likes and has ignored the rest.

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