SPECIAL REPORT: CONCEALED WEAPON PERMITS
Florida in cross hairs for its lax training requirements to carry hidden guns
Henry Pierson Curtis
Sentinel Staff Writer
April 30, 2008
Some of the 500,000 people holding concealed-weapons permits in Florida qualified by using toy guns.
Recent complaints to state officials pointed out that almost anyone who wants to carry a handgun to the movies, mall or church can do so. The shortcomings they cited include training that allows firing bullets without gunpowder, and passing students for merely pulling the trigger once or twice without ever loading or unloading a handgun.
Quickie permit classes had become so common, the National Rifle Association threatened this month to fire any NRA-certified instructor who didn't use real guns to teach students in Florida.
Though carrying a concealed weapon requires a state permit, gun owners need only take a gun-safety course and show they know how to safely fire a real bullet. That's not the case in at least eight states -- where applicants must be able to hit a bulls-eye repeatedly.
"Unlike Texas, we do not have to have so many rounds at 10 feet or so many rounds at 15 feet. Florida just doesn't have that," said Buddy Bevis, director of licensing for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The concealed-weapon statute "just says you have to be able to fire and handle a firearm safely," he said. "It doesn't say if it takes one [shot] or 100."
Shoddy training became an issue this month, more than a year after a retired military officer first complained to Gov. Charlie Crist about classes at gun shows.
"You can only train a corpse in 3 hours," Col. James K. Otto Sr., an NRA instructor from North Florida, wrote to the governor. "Our NRA certified instructors take 3 days to a week to make sure their students not only know the law but also know how to handle firearms and ammunition safely with at least a half day firing at a local range."
The letter started a sputtering chain reaction after landing on Bevis' desk with the added detail that some students at these classes trained with toy guns. Bevis called the voice of the NRA in Florida to complain.
"I did call Marion Hammer and say, 'I don't know what you've got going on down there, but you better tighten it up,' " Bevis said in a telephone interview. "And that's it."
Hammer, a former NRA president and one of the state's most powerful lobbyists, alerted NRA national headquarters. Within days, every NRA-certified instructor in Florida was warned they would lose their credentials for not using real guns with real bullets in class.
"Specifically, Air Soft or other air-driven guns are not acceptable," stated the April 14 memo. "Florida law requires that you maintain records certifying that you 'observed the student safely handle and discharge the firearm.' "
Air Soft guns are plastic replicas of firearms, which cost as little as $5 to more than $300. Many are sold as toys equipped with orange muzzles to distinguish them from real guns.
Hammer said the NRA issued the warning to make sure every class it certifies complies with state law. She finds nothing wrong with not requiring concealed-weapon permit holders to demonstrate a minimum level of shooting ability.
"In the 21 years that this program has been in effect, I know of no incident or accident that occurred as a result of lack of training," Hammer said by phone from Tallahassee.
The law "was never intended to make target shooters out of people. It was never intended to make street cops out of them," she said. "This is merely to show that individuals know how to load, unload and safely use a firearm for lawful self-defense."
Florida permit holders can carry their concealed weapons in 32 other states. Fifteen other states do not grant such reciprocity. One of them, South Carolina, cites Florida's low standards as the reason.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence advocates rigorous testing of shooting ability, knowledge of state laws and giving law enforcement discretion over who should be allowed to carry a hidden handgun.
"In Florida, where you're permitting them to legally carry a loaded, hidden handgun in a crowded situation where people may be running all over the place and then you're expecting them with no training to hit their mark -- that's crazy," said Brian Malte, the group's director of state legislation and politics. "Law-enforcement officers . . . miss their mark 80 percent of the time even after all the training they get."
Tighter restrictions on toy guns still don't mean all applicants must show they know how to shoot a pistol.
Concealed-weapon permits are available to graduates of classes taught by state-certified instructors and hunter-safety courses as well as NRA-certified classes. Graduates of the state's 12-hour hunter-safety course fire a .22-caliber rifle, a 20-gauge shotgun and a bow and arrow, but not a pistol, according to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Many Central Florida gun-shop owners are critical of quickie permit classes.
"If somebody was to cold call and say, 'Hey, I've never fired a gun before and I want to take your concealed-weapon class,' we will not allow them to sign up for the class," said John Ritz, manager of East Orange Shooting Sports in Winter Park. "It's not an introduction-to-shooting class. It's not a brand-new, basic beginner's class. We have those classes, and we do those classes several times a week."
Ritz estimated that about 1 percent of permit holders actually carry their guns daily. Those tend to be shooting enthusiasts, who fire at least 50 bullets in practice each month. Perhaps 25 percent of his students occasionally go armed and the rest almost never do, he said.
Soon, gun owners in Florida will be allowed to take their weapons to work.. Floridians already had the right to keep a loaded handgun in their vehicles. The new law, which takes effect July 1, lets gun owners park on company property and leave a handgun locked in the trunk.
Few safe places remain in Central Florida's urban sprawl for shooters to practice.
Orange County -- home to more than 23,000 concealed-weapon permit holders and 70 gun dealers -- has five public shooting ranges and one private gun club, records show.
Shoot Straight in Apopka, one of Florida's busiest gun stores, allows inexperienced shooters to take its permit classes. But store manager Larry Anderson said instructors stress that anyone carrying a firearm in public should be so skilled that its use is second nature.
"People need to practice more, there's no doubt about that," he said. "You need to be so proficient with that gun, you're comfortable."
Henry Pierson Curtis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
. or 407-420-5257.
A related story ran on page A1.
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