Florida state lawmakers want to let residents carry concealed weapons without a permit during evacuations because of hurricanes and floods, though some law enforcement officials say the idea would create more chaos in already turbulent situations.
A bill introduced by Republican Rep. Heather Dawes Fitzenhagen of Ft. Myers, Fla. would allow legal gun owners who lack concealed carry permits to carry their weapon on their person during evacuations triggered by government-declared states of emergency. Under current law, Florida residents can carry their weapons during an emergency evacuation only if they're stored in a container or vehicle.
Fitzenhagen told TIME her bill is a common-sense proposal for a state that was hit by nearly half of all hurricanes that have made landfall in the U.S. since 1851 and where nearly 870,000 firearm background checks were performed in 2013 alone. Florida's Department of Law Enforcement wasn't able to provide the number of citizens who own a gun or guns but lack a concealed carry permit.
“This bill would allow residents to evacuate as quickly and safely as they can,” Fitzenhagen said. “It provides protection for someone who does not have a concealed weapons permit, but is told they need to evacuate.”
Fitzenhagen's colleagues agree -- her bill passed Florida's House of Representatives 80-36 last Friday. Among the bill's other supporters is the National Rifle Association, which has been lobbying for it and other gun bills making their way through the Florida legislature this session.
However, some law enforcement officials are raising questions about Fitzenhagen's bill. Grady Judd, president of the Florida Sheriff's Association and a Polk County Sheriff, for example, is concerned that if a person with a gun leaves a jurisdiction where an evacuation has been ordered and enters one where it has not, that person could be subject to arrest.
"Florida stretches from Key West to Pensacola," Judd said. "What happens when they evacuate from the declared emergency counties? Are you illegally carrying a gun?"
Judd's group is seeking clarification on that point. Meanwhile, others are concerned unclear language in one provision of Fitzenhagen's bill could make it legal for citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit during riots. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualitieri told the Miami Herald last week the bill "would give me pause, as sheriff, in declaring a state of emergency."
"If I know cops would have to deal with god knows what, I now have to worry about making a situation worse," Gualitieri told the Herald.
Fitzenhagen, however, said Gualitieri's fears are unfounded.
"We aren't proposing carrying guns in a riot," Fitzenhagen said. "Local governments may declare a state of emergency, but residents still must be in the act of evacuating in order for the law to take effect. We're not simply saying that because there's a state of emergency people are allowed to walk around with a weapon on them."
Despite Fitzengaen's reassurances, the state Senate stripped the unclear riot-related provision from its version of the bill, which has not yet passed. Even still, some Democrats have other concerns about Fitzenhagen's proposal. Rep. Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat, told Reuters after the House passed the bill that he's worried it would allow Floridians to carry weapons into evacuation shelters.
"You are talking about introducing concealed firearms into an environment that is already teeming with tension," Torres said after the House bill was passed. "I hope that tragedy will not be a byproduct of our decision here today."