Florida Politicians Clash Over Who Will Issue Gun Permits

In most states, Law Enforcement oversees the issuing of concealed weapons permits but not so in Florida. In 2002, the Division of Licensing was moved from the Florida Department of State to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). This happened in part because the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbied for the change in order to keep the program under the oversight of an elected official. But now the NRA is now seeking to move the Division of Licensing again; this time under the jurisdiction of the Chief Financial Officer.

The NRA’s response come after a huge upset for their candidate of choice for Agricultural Commissioner, Matt Caldwell. In the initial vote count, Mr. Caldwell won the election but in the recounts, lost to Ms. Fried within a small margin of votes. Mr. Caldwell described the loss as “heart-breaking.”

His was not the only heart broken.

Marion Hammer, the most influential lobbyist for the NRA in the state of Florida, saw his loss as potentially damaging to Floridian’s rights to bear arms and not just because he lost to a Democrat. Rather, it is because Ms. Fried, who is the lone Democratic victor of the mid-terms, has said she would thoroughly review and evolve the gun licensing process. She has even said that the program might be better run if handed to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. “It’s a commissioner who has vowed to tinker with the program, to try to fix something that isn’t broken, and to generally disrupt the program that currently serves over 1.8 million Floridians,” Ms. Hammer said.

Despite Ms. Hammer’s defense of the FDACS’ handling of the licensing program, it has become a subject of public scrutiny over this past year.

The current Agriculture Commissioner, Adam Putnam, was put under the microscope when he was leading in the 2018 GOP primary race for Florida’s Governor. During this time, Politico reported that three staffers in Mr. Putnam’s FDACS admitted to sexual harassment and watching pornography on government computers. It was also revealed by Naples Daily news that one of his high-ranking staffers, Jay Levenstein – who was often assigned to handle Ms. Hammer’s more curtly worded complaints – had an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.

But the most damning criticism of Mr. Putnam’s office came the year before. In the summer of 2017, an investigation by the Inspector General revealed that FDACS failed to consult an FBI database when background-checking gun permit applicants. According to an investigation by the Inspector General, this failure continued for over a year because an employee hadn’t resolved a “login issue.” Mr. Putnam, called for a review of 365 applications which required checking of the FBI database and he said that 291 of those applications were revoked. Mr. Caldwell believes that the situation was handled as well as it could have been. “The buck stops at the top, without a doubt,” he said in an interveiw with GrayScale. “But if you have an employee that’s purposely misleading and not doing their job, they should be fired.” He added that as far as he knew an extra level of review had been added to the licensing process to prevent these kind of mistakes from happening again but that he would’ve had to made sure this was the case had he won the office.

Amidst all this controversy, Mr. Putnam never tried to hide his loyalty to the NRA and even embraced the title of an “NRA sellout” when it was given to him by critics.

Ms. Hammer’s influence in the office is evident in emails she sent to officials in FDACS. Her emails which were characteristically blunt and direct echoed concerns of the NRA and NRA members. In one, she loathed that the Division of Licensing website, saying that it “ABSOLUTELY SUCKS” in all caps. Officials over the years were relatively quick to respond to Ms. Hammer’s complaints and concerns. In January of 2016, Ms. Hammer even convinced the department to issue a gun license renewal to a man who had originally been denied. The reason for the denial given to Ms. Hammer was that the man’s application had not been properly notarized both times he had mailed it, but they assured Ms. Hammer that they would issue the license anyway without the required notarization. “… as you are aware we have legislation pending this session to remove the notary requirement for renewals so I’ve directed we issue based on his valid signature on the form,” the email said.

In many ways, Ms. Fried represents a threat to years of lobbying by Ms. Hammer in Florida. For one, Ms. Hammer took credit for having the Division of Licensing moved to Department of Agriculture in the first place. “What we did is we helped write the bill and then amended it onto somebody else’s bill,” she told the media. “It was just me. Just NRA. Just gun owners wanting to be sure the program was protected.” The idea behind the change was that an elected official could be held more accountable for their handling of the weapons permits than an unelected official.

Florida is one of the few states to have an elected cabinet consisting of the Governor, the Chief Financial Officer, the Attorney General and the Agricultural Commissioner. This puts the Department of Agriculture in highest echelons of Floridan government and provides Agricultural Commissioners with a unique opportunity to pursue issues that directly affect Floridians including the most obvious one: agriculture, which is still the number two industry of the state. It also oversees ride safety and other issues related to tourism, Florida’s number one industry. Thus, FDACS is so much bigger than gun issues because it already oversees so much of Florida’s day to day operations. In fact, the race of Agricultural Commissioner would have had nothing to do with guns had it not been for the NRA and politicians who embraced their message. And even though he proudly embraced the NRA’s endorsement of him, guns weren’t even the core staple of Mr. Caldwell’s campaign. When I asked him why he ran for the Agricultural Commissioner, he never mentioned guns, stating that his core policy issues were natural resources, everglades restoration and water policy.

Still, Mr. Caldwell agrees with the NRA that an elected official should oversee the Division of Licensing but he added that he would leave the debate of who that might be to the legislature. Whatever the case, Ms. Hammer and the NRA only have the four cabinet positions to choose from if they want an elected official handling gun permits.

However, this could change in the future. Some are pushing for Chief Law Enforcement officers – generally oversee the licensing process in other states- to be elected, too. “I believe that chief law enforcement officers should be elected,” Mr. Caldwell said. “The person who has the right to arrest you should be directly accountable to the people not appointed by someone else.” The passing of Amendment 10 inches this vision a little closer to reality. It requires Sheriffs in all 67 counties to be elected starting in 2019. But until law enforcement at the state level is directly held accountable by voters, it is unlikely that the NRA would ever consider letting them handle gun permits without a fight.

Democrats, on the other hand, are calling for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to oversee the licensing process for the very reason that they are unelected. Their goal is to depoliticize the gun licensing process by giving it to those who do not have to campaign to get into their positions. Nikki Fired has already said that Law Enforcement should oversee the process instead of FDACS.

However, when the legislature opens the NRA will be pushing to have licensing moved to the Chief Financial Officer’s office. Should they succeed, it would not be the first time they successfully lobbied for their version of the licensing process in Florida.

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