State Sen. Lauren Book on Thursday filed a measure that would shift the state’s concealed firearms licensing program to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Currently, the licensing program is overseen by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, helmed by outgoing Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
Book, a Plantation Democrat, said she filed the bill (SB 108) because the permitting program should not be subject to “political whim.”
Putnam’s department came under public scrutiny earlier this year after the Tampa Bay Times reported an employee failed to conduct one of the national background checks for concealed-weapons licenses. The story prompted an internal review that resulted in the revocation of 291 previously issued licenses.
Putnam, before the damaging report, previously described himself as a “sellout” to the National Rifle Association. In light of the omitted background checks, Putnam was accused of playing too much politics with the NRA in an attempt to streamline the state’s gun permitting process. Several Democrats called for his resignation after the incident.
Book said that her time chairing an agriculture and natural resources subcommittee during her freshman term, which began in 2016, prompted her to begin reconsidering the way the state issues concealed-weapons permits. The Times report, however, was the ultimate impetus.
“I’m simply trying to make sure that the process is correct and shifted to where it should and ought to be,” Book explained.
Because law enforcement officers often are in harm’s way, Book said they “should be the ones checking to make sure that people who have weapons should be the ones who have them.”
Agriculture Commissioner-elect Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat voted to statewide office in 2018, promised “a wholesale audit” of the weapons-permitting process as a candidate.
That’s still the plan, a “first priority” after taking oath in January, Fried said — even with Thursday’s legislative developments.
“It is critical to Florida’s public safety that we determine where and how failures have occurred, and ensure that permits are only issued under my administration after the completion of background checks—as plainly required under Florida law,” added Fried.
And she doesn’t seem to mind the prospect of losing supervision of the permitting process should the bill become law.
“Looking to the future, we must start the conversation of nonpartisan oversight of the permit process to take politics out of public safety,” Fried said, adding that law enforcement would not be “subject to the whims of the political party that happens to be in power and could provide diligent oversight of the program.”
Book said the bill had been submitted for drafting in July when the outcome of the Ag Commissioner race was more than unclear.
“I believed then what I believe now,” Book said. “It didn’t matter to me whether it was a Democrat or Republican [elected Agriculture Commissioner].”
Because the head of the FDLE is an appointed post, the idea is that political pressure will not pervade the agency’s internal processes.
Now led by Commissioner Rick Swearingen, FDLE declined to comment on the new legislation. Swearingen is an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott.
Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet jointly have the power to appoint a different FDLE Commissioner after January but could opt to keep Swearingen in place.
A request for comment is pending from Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the NRA who, the Times reports, expressed the desire to leave the permitting process under the power of an elected official.
Book’s legislation is nascent; it still has to get referred to committee hearings and a companion bill will need to be filed in the House for the change to have any chance of becoming law. Book said she hasn’t spoken about the bill with chamber leadership, namely Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican. A request for comment on the new legislation is pending with his office.
Galvano championed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act earlier this year in the wake of the tragic Parkland shooting that left 17 dead. Among other things, the legislation provided for a three-day waiting period to buy any firearm, a new age limit — 21 (up from 18) — for gun purchases, and an all-out ban on bump stocks.
The NRA staunchly opposed the bill and sued the state immediately after Scott signed it into law in March.