Florida lawmakers need to legalize open carry | Commentary

Florida’s Republican lawmakers have continuously campaigned on the claim that Florida is the “Gunshine State” and one of the freest states in the Union. Yet, under two decades of GOP leadership, our Legislature has failed to legalize the open carry of firearms, leaving us in the very small and very liberal company of only New York, Illinois, and California.

Since open carry was banned (at the urging of then-Dade County prosecutor Janet Reno), we haven’t seen a great reduction in crime. We can, however, analyze several incidents where honest citizens had their rights violated because of this policy.

Take a recent incident in Columbia County late last year, where James Hodges, who is legally blind, was reporting for jury duty. While walking to the courthouse, he was stopped, harassed and ultimately charged with obstruction without violence. His crime: carrying a folded seeing-eye cane for his visual impairment — but to the deputies on scene, the law-abiding citizen who was doing his civic duty appeared to be openly carrying a firearm.

More recently, in Volusia County, a father was openly carrying a firearm on his own property (the one situation where legal to do so) when his neighbor’s pit bull got loose. With his six-year-old daughter at his side, John Leggett had reason to be concerned since the dog was being aggressive towards his daughter, but Daytona Beach Police happened to arrive on scene at the same time for a welfare check on the neighbor, and upon seeing Leggett armed, the officers arrested him in total violation of existing law.

As a former cop, I can speak directly to the real issue at hand: the state’s ban on open carry puts police in confusing situations that normally wouldn’t even matter. Hodges would not have been so aggressively confronted near the courthouse on a public sidewalk, and Leggett would not have had his civil rights violated while he was protecting his daughter if our lawmakers had been willing to change course and join the near unanimous crowd of states that allow open carry in one form or another. While the authorities have dropped charges in both cases, that still cannot make up for the wrong that was committed.

This past legislative session, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo claimed her opposition to open carry was because Florida’s sheriffs are against it. Yet, the current head of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, Bill Leeper of Nassau County, has previously stated his support for open carry, as have other Florida sheriffs like Wayne Ivey of Brevard County.

These lawmakers need to get their act together. Current State Supreme Court precedent, which dates to 2017, makes clear that under existing state law, citizens do not have a right to openly carry, rather, it is a privilege that can be granted by the state. This ruling now may directly contradict the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling from last year, which overturned several onerous state carry laws.

Yes, the Legislature managed to pass some semblance of pro-gun policy last year with permitless concealed carry, but that still leaves police stuck with a confusing exception and “We the People” in small and very liberal company.

The current ban has a racist past, is rightfully opposed by our governor, and deserves to be sent to the scrapyard of history. It doesn’t stop criminals from breaking the law, but instead simply prevents honest law-abiding Floridians from fully exercising their civil rights.

Just like a rattlesnake, a person openly carrying sends a message to would be bad guys: don’t even bother. Our lawmakers need to get their act together and give us the full-fledged rights the citizens of this free state are demanding.

Luis Valdes is the Florida State Director for Gun Owners of America, a no-compromise grassroots gun lobby with approximately 2.5 million members. He resides in Brevard County and is a former police officer and detective.