SCOTT MCINTYRE/NAPLES DAILY NEWS Concealed weapon permit safety class instructor Michael Collins works with students during a shooting exercise at Fowler Firearms & Gun Range in Fort Myers on Wednesday.
TALLAHASSEE — Florida last year saw the largest decrease in 15 years for requests to carry concealed weapons, a drop that some gun shop owners believe is the result of failed national efforts to increase gun controls.
“It’s never what people see on TV that drives them to want a concealed-weapons permit. It’s normally when they hear about plans to change laws,” said Jon Dezendorf, a manager at the Fort Myers Fowler Firearms and Gun Range. “When there’s no talk about gun control, we see less people.”
Classes have gotten smaller for instructors who teach gun safety, and police agencies that provide fingerprint cards are seeing fewer people in pursuit of just one of the required documents needed for the permit.
About 134,000 people applied to carry a concealed weapon in Florida during the fiscal year that ended in June, a 33 percent decrease from the 204,288 applications received in fiscal 2013 by the Florida Department of Agriculture, the most the agency’s Division of Licensing had ever seen.
All but five of the state’s 67 counties saw a decrease last year in requests for permits to carry concealed weapons, according to an analysis of state data. Indian River, Franklin, Highlands, Wakulla and Washington had increases in permit applications.
The decrease in concealed permit applications comes as lawmakers consider expanding how concealed weapons can be used in Florida. Committees in the House and Senate approved bills last week that would allow concealed weapons on Florida college campuses. Another House bill would allow people licensed to carry concealed weapons to openly display them.
It’s not that Floridians have lost their love for guns. Handgun sales in the state continue to outpace most other states. Data provided by the FBI show that in July and August, Florida led the country for federal background checks required to purchase handguns. And in the months of this year before that, the top spot rotated among Florida, California, Pennsylvania and Texas.
And Florida has about 1.4 million active concealed weapon permits, including those issued to people who only visit the state.
But fewer people are taking the additional steps and training required to carry their weapons with them, concealed and ready.
Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said she sees fluctuations in permit applications when talk of gun control heats up.
“The increase and then later decline occurred because there was a strong belief that President Barack Obama was going to restrict access to concealed weapons permits, hence the increase,” said Darnell, who also serves as Florida Sheriffs Association president. “As time went on and restrictions did not occur, this belief or fear of restricted access diminished, hence the decline.”
TALK SPURS REQUESTS
The state numbers certainly suggest Darnell is right. A review of the number of requests for concealed weapon permits by Florida counties over the past 14 years shows big surges in applications when the national political conversation turned to gun control. There were spikes after Obama, who as a candidate in 2008 advocated gun control, took office. And there were record numbers of applications as Obama and others fought for gun control measures in 2012, according to the state data.
In the fiscal year that ended in June 2007, the state Agriculture agency received 73,179 applications for the permits. But applications more than doubled by June 2010 during Obama’s first term to 167,240, according to state data.
At the end of 2012, the U.S. saw three mass shooting incidents — in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard; and at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Those incidents prompted Obama to vow the nation’s gun laws would change, and he pushed tougher background checks, access to mental health records and an all-out ban on military-style assault weapons.
“I urge the new Congress to hold votes on these measures next year in a timely manner,” he said in a December 2012 speech.
The fierce national debate that followed was accompanied by the largest number of requests for concealed weapons permits in Florida’s history, up to more than 204,000 by June 2013. Obama’s proposals failed, but many in the state acted anyway.
Naples firearms instructor Mark Michael said such debates definitely impact interest in his gun safety classes.
“We don’t have too much going on politically right now, so people aren’t in a rush to get them,” said Michael, who owns Naples Guns & Ammo. “If politics gets involved and they start talking about banning assault rifles and ammunition, my parking lot is full for class.”
Florida State University Criminologist Gary Kleck said talk of gun control has historically spurred gun purchases, but he doesn’t agree changes in the number of permit applications are tied so closely to national political debate.
“For example, one reason applications would drop off is if everyone who wants one already has an active permit,” Kleck said.
Some of the state’s smallest counties saw the greatest interest in requesting concealed weapons permits. A breakdown of data compared with a per capita rate of 5,000 residents revealed Okaloosa County in the Panhandle saw Florida’s highest rate of concealed weapons permit applications last year, with 74 requests per 5,000 residents. The county is home to Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who sponsored the bill that would allow concealed weapons permit holders to openly carry a firearm.
In Southwest Florida, Collier County was near the bottom of the state’s counties, ranked 56 of 67 with nearly 24 requests per 5,000 residents. Lee County was 38th, with about 30 requests per 5,000 residents and Charlotte County was 17th with just under 38.
Wakulla County was one of five last year that saw an increase in concealed weapons permit, up 17 percent to 277 requests from the prior year’s 236. Wakulla County Sheriff Charlie Creel attributed the rise to a one-stop-shop he created where individuals can take the class and prepare their paperwork for the background check required to complete a concealed carry application.
“With everything that’s happening right now — home invasions and robberies — I think people want to protect themselves,” Creel said.
Indian River County saw its requests go from 1,189 in fiscal 2013 to 1,255 in fiscal 2014. Martin saw its requests drop from 1,224 to 925 during that same period, while St. Lucie saw its requests go from 2,423 to 1,843.
It’s not difficult to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon in Florida, and data show the vast majority of requests are approved, with only .01 percent rejected over a 10-year period ending in June. Applicants must pass a gun safety course and a background check and pay a $112 fee.
Florida shares reciprocity with 34 states that offer a variety of concealed carry laws. For instance, Vermont allows anyone who owns a gun to carry it concealed, with no permit required. But a Vermont resident would be required to obtain a Florida permit before carrying a concealed weapon here.
The varying laws have prompted some visitors to also carry a Florida concealed weapons permit. The rules for people who are not Florida residents to obtain a permit are the same as those set for Floridians, but fingerprint fees are more. Data show the number of out-of-state Florida permit holders has surged over the years, from 2,034 in the 2001 fiscal year to a peak of 36,447 in the year that ended June 2013.
‘MORE EDUCATION THE BETTER’
State Sen. Chris Smith took the classes required to carry a concealed weapon during 2013 floor debates on a failed bill to repeal the controversial Stand Your Ground Law. He said he expects another surge in the requests for concealed weapons permits in the wake of higher handgun sales.
“With all of the discussion of violence and what people see on TV, whether it’s with our without law enforcement involved, I think it definitely led to an uptick in the purchase of guns,” said Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. “Eventually, they’ll want to carry their weapon, too.”
Marion Hammer, a past president of the National Rifle Association who is the executive director of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, agrees with Smith.
“It takes a while for new gun owners to learn to shoot and become comfortable with new firearms, and then get the training courses they need to qualify for a license to carry a concealed firearm,” said
More applications wouldn’t be a bad thing, said Naples Police Department spokesman Lt. Seth Finman.
“We think it’s great when people go through the process of carrying a concealed weapon, because it involves the safety training,” he said. “The more education the better.”
In an effort to prevent future backlog of applications, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam announced a partnership last month with 13 county tax collectors who also would accept concealed carry applications.
Also, the July shooting at a military recruitment center in Chattanooga, Tennessee prompted Putnam to offer an expedited permit application process for active and veteran military members. Licensing Division Director Grea Bevis told the House Business and Professions Subcommittee last week his office it has since issued 7,949 permits to those who fit the expedited criteria with an average wait time of six days.
The average wait time for civilian applications is 90 days, Keller said.