By: Jim Turner News Service of Florida from Sunshine State News
State Sen. Denise Grimsley would immediately order a “full audit” of Florida’s concealed-weapons licensing process, as well as examine the management structure of the program, if she is elected agriculture commissioner.
And the Sebring Republican is joined by two of her primary opponents, former state Rep. Baxter Troutman of Winter Haven and Plant City businessman Mike McCalister, in saying accountability for problems with background checks rests with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican who is running for governor.
Yet, Troutman accepts that Putnam, who has served as agriculture commissioner since 2011, has taken responsibility for heavily publicized issues in the licensing process.
“Setting an environment that demands accountability, productivity and success lies at the top. The buck stops with the commissioner, which is something Commissioner Putnam has acknowledged,” Troutman said, when asked about Putnam’s degree of accountability.
The Tampa Bay Times reported last month that state investigators found a former Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services employee, who had been promoted from a job in the mail room, failed for a year to conduct one of the national background checks for concealed-weapons licenses.
The Associated Press later reported state investigators determined that 48 employees had made mistakes in the review process, requiring the agency to revoke two concealed-weapons licenses and an armed security guard license.
The Times has also reported that Putnam’s agency paid $30,000 to settle a lawsuit with a former employee who claimed she was required to meet a daily processing quota and that she had been advised “she worked for the NRA.”
This year’s fourth Republican candidate for agriculture commissioner, state Rep. Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers, did not respond to the questions last week about the licensing issues from The News Service of Florida.
Putnam’s office has pushed back against the reports, with Putnam saying after the initial Times report last month that problems had been corrected and that “public safety was not at risk.” But Democrats have seized on the reports to criticize Putnam.
Nikki Fried, a Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner, said she intends — if elected — to do an audit of the entire department “to ensure it is operating efficiently and effectively on behalf of the people of Florida.”
“The recent revelations of Commissioner Putnam’s failures to properly oversee the permitting of concealed-carry and private security guard licenses are potentially indicative of a broader mismanagement of the department,” Fried said. “We must find out if that is the case, and if so, take action.”
Grimsley said an audit she plans would determine if any administrative changes are needed regarding the licensing procedures.
McCalister, also a retired Army National Guard and Reserves colonel, said no concealed-weapons license should be deemed complete until all required background checks are included with an application.
Troutman intends to implement a new reporting structure that would measure outcomes and expectations.
“In business, things that get measured get done, and people must be held accountable,” Troutman said.
Grimsley mirrored Troutman with a “buck always stops at the top” comment, but added she needs to better understand the procedures used to process the applications.
“I look forward to speaking with Commissioner Putnam and his management team to better understand the procedures they have used and then think about ways to ensure that we are deploying resources and using processes that work to provide safety and security going forward,” Grimsley said.
Democratic candidate Jeff Porter, who is the mayor of Homestead, joined Grimsley and McCalister in maintaining that the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services can continue to handle the applications.
“I would institute a level of professionalism not found in the program today,” Porter said. “It is unconscionable to have had a mail-room clerk be responsible for the checking of the NCIC [National Crime Information Center] checks. I would hire a team with a law-enforcement background to oversee this critical program to all Floridians.”
McCalister said the permitting process “should be handled by a statewide elected official to ensure consistent standards and not left to unelected persons.”
Democratic candidate David Walker, a marine biologist, favors moving the checks to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“Law enforcement officials are better equipped to perform a thorough background check,” Walker said. “It will also link the concealed-weapon permit, which is under the commissioner of agriculture, with gun purchase, which is under Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Linking concealed-weapon license with gun purchase will make it easier for law enforcement officials to see compliance with gun purchases.”
Fried said moving the processing to the FDLE is something that deserves discussion.
“All concealed-weapons permit applications are run through the Florida Crime Information Center, which is run by the FDLE,” Fried said. “Background checks are run to ensure that CWP’s [concealed-weapons permits] don’t end up in the hands of the wrong people and to protect society. So, in my opinion, it is completely reasonable to have the conversation of moving this responsibility over to the law enforcement professionals.”
Troutman said he’s also open to such discussions.
“Florida is one of four states where someone other than law enforcement issues concealed-carry permits,” Troutman said. “The Legislature and governor ultimately decide where this program is housed, and I’m open to discussions exploring improvements to the application process.”
None of the candidates called for eliminating or scaling back the concealed-weapons licensing process. In December 2012, Florida became the first state in the nation to surpass 1 million active conceal-carry permits.
But the Democrats expressed some concerns with proposals to expand laws dealing with gun rights, such as allowing people with concealed-weapons licenses to openly carry handguns, an issue that lawmakers have considered.
“It is not in the best interest of Floridians to have an open-carry policy as it places everyone in danger,” Walker said. “If there is an incident, police would not know who is the perpetrator versus the victim.”
Porter said “open carry” isn’t necessary due to the large number of legal gun owners in the state.
“Criminals should think twice about committing a crime against a resident of Florida, whether or not they are showing a gun, the odds are that the potential victim is carrying a legal weapon to defend themselves,” Porter said.
Grimsley and Troutman, who recently received “B plus” and “C minus” grades, respectively, from the National Rifle Association, offered outright support for the Second Amendment.
Grimsley added she’d support “any efforts to give law-abiding Floridians more freedom to exercise it.”
The state had surpassed 1.9 million active concealed-weapons licenses as of June 30.