A bill to force the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to keep a concealed carry permit application available online is on its way through the committee process after passing its first House panel Wednesday.
That’s in response to when the department, under Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, took down its concealed carry permit application portal on March 23, soon after the COVID-19 pandemic reached Florida. That portal remained closed for nearly three months while the Agriculture Department faced lawsuits from gun rights groups over the closures.
The move came after Gov. Ron DeSantis recommended state offices temporarily close to the public beginning March 19.
Local law enforcement agencies and tax collector offices throughout the state largely suspended fingerprint services. Halting those services left first-time concealed weapons permit applicants unable to obtain fingerprints from those providers, according to the Agriculture Department. That would have forced the department to issue refunds, which it legally cannot do.
The House Civil Justice and Property Rights Subcommittee voted 10-6, along party lines, to advance the bill.
Bill sponsor Rep. Blaise Ingoglia did not mention Fried, the lone Democrat elected to a statewide office in Florida, while outlining his bill (HB 1343). But he confirmed the effort was in direct response to the closures.
“The reasoning for [the department] closing down the portal was saying that you could not get fingerprints at the time, which was absolutely not true. You could have gotten it at any sheriff’s office,” Ingoglia said.
“By showing that you could do this same thing online as you could do by paper shows that they took it down arbitrarily,” he told the committee. “That’s what we’re trying to stop. We’re saying you have to keep going continually.”
The right to bear arms is a constitutional right, stressed Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican. Yet other portals remained open during the concealed carry permit stoppage.
Democratic Rep. Mike Gottlieb, a criminal defense lawyer from Davie, said he saw the justice system come to a halt at the beginning of the pandemic. Sheriff’s offices and local police departments were not allowing face-to-face contact, preventing fingerprinting, he insisted.
He said he didn’t believe the bill was unnecessary, noting he has a concealed carry permit himself. However, he considered the effort an overreach and “much ado about nothing.”
“This was a very trying time for everybody in society, and to speculate that they took it down for a nefarious reason to deny people their opportunity to have a concealed carry permit is really, I don’t think, our mission here,” Gottlieb said.
In a statement to Florida Politics, Fried called the bill “overreaching, unnecessary and as wasteful as the failed lawsuit filed by fringe activists.” She also highlighted the “record-high” 400,000 licenses issued or renewed last year despite the pandemic.
“State law doesn’t allow us to refund applicants who don’t complete the process, including their fingerprints,” Fried said. “Because fingerprinting was largely unavailable during the pandemic, including from local law enforcement and tax collector offices, we made the responsible decision to temporarily suspend the online portal to prevent frustration from applicants.”
Fried added that the department never stopped processing applications it did receive.
“If Rep. Ingoglia really wants to help improve concealed weapons licensing, he could start with legislation to help us refund applicant fees, instead of politically-motivated bills that are a non-solution in search of a non-existent problem.”
It’s not the first attack the Republican-controlled Legislature has launched against FDACS since Fried took control. Last year, the House voted to strip the department of the Office of Energy and to move it back to the Department of Environmental protection, where it rested until 2011. Fried called that effort, backed by DeSantis, a “partisan power grab.”
Ingoglia’s bill next heads to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. Estero Republican Sen. Ray Rodrigues‘ identical version (SB 1882), filed late last month, awaits its first hearing. The legislation would take effect in July.