TALLAHASSEE — Floridians in record numbers want to carry concealed weapons, a trend linked to a surge in crime, economic anxiety and fears of stricter gun laws.
The state is buried under a backlog of 95,000 applications for concealed weapons permits and it needs to hire a lot more people to handle the paperwork. A legislative panel Wednesday gave Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson the OK to spend $3.9-million more so he can hire 61 temporary workers.
"Once the economy gets bad, crime always goes up," said Bronson, a certified police officer. "People get desperate whenever things are not going the way they feel like they should be going, and they'll do things they normally wouldn't do."
The state reported a surge in applications in November after the election of President Obama, who in the past has advocated stricter gun control laws but who also campaigned as a defender of Second Amendment rights. Florida received 75,679 first-time concealed weapon permit applications in 2007
and 86,269 in 2008
, in addition to tens of thousands of renewal forms.
Nationwide, retailers report a surge in sales of firearms in recent months. Some Florida stores have run out of ammunition.
As applications for gun permits stack up, the state reports a spike in phone calls from impatient applicants, and at least 140 large tubs in a Tallahassee office building are filled with unprocessed applications.
By law, the state must process permit applications within 90 days. A permit is valid for seven years and costs $117, which includes a $44 fee for state and federal background checks and a set of fingerprints. The money to hire new employees comes from fees paid by applicants, not from general tax dollars.
Adding to the backlog of applications is that the state gives a priority to renewal forms, to avoid cases of gun owners unknowingly having their permits expire or to catch cases in which permit holders have broken the law.
Asked about the surge in gun permit applications, Gov. Charlie Crist said: "I'm pro-gun. I think people ought to have the right to protect themselves, and if people want to get new certificates, that's their constitutional right ... If they use those instruments responsibly and prudently and within the bounds of the law, everything should be fine."
The state senator in Crist's hometown of St. Petersburg, a Democrat, disagreed. "More guns is never a good thing, especially in an urban area
," said Sen. Charlie Justice. "There are very few areas of our city that have not been touched by gun violence."
Bronson said it's a positive thing that people would seek to legally own a concealed weapon. "That's the reason why people get concealed weapons, so that if they are threatened with their life they can defend themselves and their family and their property. And this is the right way to do it."
Miami Herald political writer Beth Reinhard and Times/Herald researcher Lynette Norris contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com
or (850) 224-7263.