- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


Nov. 21

The Lakeland Ledger on openly displaying firearms in public:

A Florida House committee earlier this week moved our state one step closer to allowing people to openly display firearms in public. The House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, by its 7-6 vote Wednesday, became the second legislative panel to approve a so-called “open carry” bill, which was authored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and is co-sponsored by Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City.

Thus Florida, according to Marion Hammer, the renowned long-time lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in Tallahassee, soon could no longer be among the five states to prohibit the practice.

We respect and support the rights of gun owners to carry their weapons in accordance with existing laws. We believe that is a fundamental right under the Constitution, but also a matter of personal choice for self-defense, or the defense of firearms owners’ families and homes.

That said, though, this bill is troubling. So we urge the Legislature to think long and hard about its implications before sending it on to Gov. Rick Scott. Here are a few points for lawmakers to consider.

The bill would apply to the state’s 1.4 million licensed concealed-weapons permit holders, and future ones. Yet what benefit would they derive from this law that they don’t have now? We suppose the main one is that openly displaying a gun would serve as a warning to potential trouble-makers. But then, it would seem, the gun becomes a tool of intimidation for the innocent. And what signal does open carry send to police?

Conversely, how will we know if the person bearing his or her arms is appropriately licensed? Under current law, if the authorities see a gun, they can quickly surmise a problem exists because openly displaying a weapon is illegal. Would this new law give the police the authority to shake down people about whether they are appropriately licensed? That’s because it would force the police to have probable cause that a crime was about to be committed to request to see a permit. And if police inquire, would the presence of an easily accessible gun automatically instill a level of tension that might not exist if the weapon were not readily seen?

The most positive thing about the bill was amendments that protect private property rights. Those provisions allow property owners and employers to ban openly carrying guns from their property. But what’s cause for concern is that the bill thwarts attempts by local governments to set their own policies. According to a staff analysis posted Friday on the House website, local government officials who seek to limit open carry face a fine up to $5,000 and being fired or removed from office by the governor. And any local government that does try to restrict the practice can be sued for up to $100,000, if the weapon owner can demonstrate that he or she has been “adversely affected” by any ordinance or regulation to that effect. So much for home rule.

One curious aspect of that staff report is that the bill, if enacted, “will likely decrease prison beds.” How? Well, according to the report, 1,320 people were sentenced last year for carrying a concealed weapon or firearm, and 174 of them were ushered off to prison. Based on the provision cited in the report, that meant they were carrying a concealed weapon without a license. Under Gaetz’s bill, if it was law, those 174 defendants, or all 1,320 of them, would still be violating the law if they were openly carrying without a concealed weapons permit. The bill still criminalizes the unlicensed toting of concealed weapons, according to the staff report. Perhaps the prisons would empty a bit since openly carrying a weapon without a concealed-weapons license would be a misdemeanor, and not a felony. The report doesn’t specify whether those 174 prisoners were also hit with other charges that landed them in prison.

Finally, Gaetz’s measure has drawn considerable opposition from many sheriffs and police chiefs, including in Polk County. Last week the Polk County Police Chiefs Association, an organization that includes city police chiefs and Sheriff Grady Judd, announced its unanimous opposition to the bill.

Davenport Police Chief Larry Holden told The Ledger that the chiefs and Judd are strong Second Amendment supporters and “fully support and encourage” the right to “bear arms without openly baring arms.” Holden noted that open carry “removes the tactical advantage a citizen has to protect themselves and their families in the threat of bodily harm or possible death.”

If nothing else, let’s defer to the law enforcement officials who will have to deal with this every day. Why create more headaches for them? As often happens with overreaching government, the Legislature has a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The current concealed weapons process works just fine, so until lawmakers find that problem, they should let this issue go.




Nov. 20

The Ocala Star-Banner on hunting in state parks:

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection stirred up a needless controversy by declaring that all state parks - big or small, with beaches or near residential areas - should be considered for hunting.

Park planners have been ordered to include a “hunting” category on a checklist of what could be allowed in each of the state’s 161 parks, the Tampa Bay Times’ Craig Pittman reported this week.

Hunting initially was to be considered in parks of more than 1,000 acres, a former state planner told Pittman. But last month, agency officials directed that hunting be part of the review process for all parks.

Although the DEP says it has no current plans to allow hunting at any parks, the wide-open proposal suggests a bureaucratic arrogance that puts financial interests ahead of public interests and sentiments.

The proposal is part of new DEP Secretary Jon Steverson’s plan to make state parks pay from themselves by allowing activities that were previously banned.

Florida’s park system already pays 77 percent of its expenses through fees, concessions and other charges. Steverson, who has also proposed permitting additional cattle grazing and timber harvesting in state parks, wants the parks to pay 100 percent.

Public parks, at the state or county level, weren’t intended to be money-making or break-even propositions. They were set aside for the public’s enjoyment and to protect and preserve treasured elements of our natural environment. Among those precious features are animals and other wildlife.

For those reasons, hunting and certain commercial activities had been banned at the parks.

Hunting is already permitted at some state preserves, and some state parks may be large enough to accommodate hunting on a strictly controlled basis.

But to propose that potentially all state parks are fair game for hunting - and to have park planners explain why hunting is not appropriate at any site - shows a disregard for the parks’ intended purposes and for the public’s preferences.

Surely hunting wouldn’t be allowed at or near public beaches or in small parks or park sections next to residential or urban areas. But that makes it all the more outrageous that DEP wouldn’t eliminate the potential for such a dangerous and controversial activity.

Steverson and other DEP officials obviously weren’t deterred by the public reaction to the recent, state-sanctioned bear hunt, which drew loud and frequent protests. Maybe they’ll be more responsive to the state parks’ millions of visitors, including campers, hikers, picnickers, kayakers and birdwatchers.

Hunting poses safety risks that would have to be managed by closing parks - or at least large sections of them - during certain times, and possibly constructing berms to deflect noise and gunfire.

How would that affect Steverson’s bottom line? How often would hunting have to be allowed - and how widespread - to offset those added expenses?

The small share of the population that enjoys hunting can use state and local reserves where it’s allowed. Leave Florida’s award-winning state parks to the vast majority of Floridians who enjoy them the way they are.




Nov. 18

The Miami Herald on accountability and transparency in Florida state government

Things aren’t as bad as we thought. The Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity gave the state of Florida a D-minus when it comes to government accountability and transparency. We were positive that, in a state where the governor won’t release his tax return, families can’t find out how their loved ones died in prison and we can’t even find out how much we’re paying Pitbull to promote Florida, the state had surely earned an F.

And it looks as if lawmakers are prepared to do even more damage in the upcoming legislative session.

The center took a look at every state, and Florida landed down in the second half of the pack — ranking 30th — when it comes to being up front and clear about what elected officials, administrators and bureaucrats are doing on our behalf.

The center’s report didn’t pull any punches:

Over the past several years, the rich and powerful in Florida have seemed far less accountable to open government laws than the drug-addled and hapless. So while the public is welcome to read about how a spring breaker bit off a hamster’s head, nobody was supposed to learn about how Gov. Rick Scott ousted a top law enforcement official behind closed doors, potentially violating the state’s open meetings law.

When Scott secretly sought to have the Cabinet buy a building near the governor’s mansion, an attorney with an interest in the property sued. Scott capitulated and settled seven lawsuits alleging public-records violations for $700,000 — of taxpayers’ money.

The Legislature, too, has used its authority to draw the curtains on public access, adding one exemption after another to Florida’s once-progressive Sunshine laws. Last session, lawmakers passed a body-camera exemption that closes access to police video shot in a home, a health care facility or any place where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

However, it’s clear by now that cameras both inform the public, shield officers from wrongful-conduct allegations and clarify the answers to difficult questions of what happened, especially if someone ended up dead.

And there’s more mischief possibly coming, according to Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, including a public-records exemption for identifying anyone who has witnessed a felony. Ostensibly, this is a move to protect people from the media. “But how do you protect him in court?” Petersen asks. Is the defendant going to be prohibited from identifying his accuser? “It does not make sense,” she says.

“What if there’s a prosecutor who threatens a witness to a felony because they want him to testify, we would never know. To know the identity of the witness helps us understand the charges, or if the case should be pursued or not.”

Hoping to give frightened witnesses some protection is understandable, especially in an intimidating “no snitching” environment. But there are broader implications.

Another bill would extend an exemption that’s about to sunset. It creates an exemption for videos, photos and audio that depict the killing of a person.

It makes some sense, but again there are larger, more-onerous consequences. That’s because it also exempts images of activities leading up to the killing and immediately after. That means the death in 2006 of Martin Lee Anderson, 14, at a boot-camp youth detention center, for instance, might have been conveniently closed out and unexplored. But a 30-minute clip of surveillance video showed the teen being forced by adults to continue running track even after he collapsed. The video shows adults, including a nurse, either standing passively or laughing as the teen was dying at their feet. When all was said and done, the state shut down five boot camps.

The way things stand, Florida might earn that F after all.



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