NewsShoot first, ask questions later
Last month, an 18-year-old man named Irving Santana was shot to death in Philadelphia. Press, police and politicians alike united in righteous anger – not at the killer but at the state of Florida.
The shooter, Marquis Hill, had a valid Florida concealed-weapons license, despite having had his Pennsylvania license stripped by police in 2005. After Hill lost an appeal to get his Pennsylvania license restored in 2008, he assaulted a police officer in the courtroom.
Despite his history, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services granted Hill a license in 2009. And the Philadelphia police had to honor it. Why? Chalk it up to the “Florida loophole.”
The origin of the term “Florida loophole” can be traced to 1987, when Florida began issuing concealed-weapons licenses to residents and non-residents alike. State officials say that making every American citizen eligible for a Florida license makes sense, considering the number of people who live in the Sunshine State part-time, and the even greater number that vacation here.
In 1999, Florida began signing its first reciprocity agreements with other states, which provide for mutual recognition of concealed-weapons licenses. Today, 34 states honor Florida concealed-weapons licenses the same way they do in-state licenses. Pennsylvania is one of them.
It wasn’t long before people living in Philadelphia – a city that issues concealed-weapons permits sparingly – discovered they could turn to states such as Florida for permission to carry a weapon after being denied a permit at home. Some Philadelphia residents whose permits had been revoked in Pennsylvania found they could still apply for – and sometimes receive – Florida licenses.
The loophole is that this gaming of the system is allowed in Pennsylvania – in many states, concealed-weapons permits are only honored if the person is a resident of the permitting state.
“In my opinion, it’s a Pennsylvania loophole,” says Ken Wilkinson of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Wilkinson points out that if the situation were reversed – if a Florida resident tried using a Pennsylvania concealed- weapons license in Florida – the permit would not be honored, as Florida does not recognize non-resident permits from other states.
But why did Florida give the nod to someone who had a license revoked in another state – a man who assaulted a police officer?
Part of the answer lies in Florida’s self- designation as a “shall issue” state. In the world of concealed-carry law, “shall issue” means that if an individual meets certain criteria, the state has no choice but to issue the applicant a license. The list of requirements for a Florida concealed-weapons license is short: You may not have been adjudicated as mentally handicapped. You must be a U.S. citizen 21 years of age or older. You must have a clean record and documentation from a state-approved weapons training course that says you can “demonstrate competency with a firearm.”
“We really have no discretionary authority,” Wilkinson says. “If all the checkmarks are ticked, then we must issue that license.”
Marquis Hill passed his background check because the charge that resulted from his courtroom assault was merely disorderly conduct – a misdemeanor. Because Florida is only concerned with felony conviction or violent misdemeanors, Hill’s application set off no red flags.
Philadelphia police, on the other hand, retain the right to refuse a license based on “character and reputation” alone. It was based on this principle that Hill was stripped of his Pennsylvania license after “contact” with police in 2005. (Before the uniform statewide licensing program was created in 1987, Florida was much the same way; concealed-weapons licenses were issued largely at the discretion of the sheriffs of each county.)
National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyist Marion Hammer calls Philadelphia’s process “arbitrary and capricious,” but Lt. Frank Vanore of the Philadelphia Police Department says that the discretionary authority is necessary to keep guns out of the hands of people who associate with convicted criminals, as well as those who are simply careless with their weapons. Hence the department’s open frustration with the Florida licenses. “Having people that we’ve turned down for some legitimate investigative reason with legitimate [Florida] gun permits puts officers in danger,” he says.
According to Vanore, more than 3,100 Pennsylvania residents hold a Florida concealed-weapons license; about 1,600 of those people live in Philadelphia.
“The issue was a ticking time bomb,” says Joe Grace, executive director of CeasefirePA, a gun-violence prevention organization based in Philadelphia. Grace had been campaigning for the closure of the “Florida loophole” months before the Santana shooting, and he now supports a bill before the Pennsylvania House that would amend the state constitution to render Pennsylvanians’ out-of-state permits invalid within state lines.
“Reciprocity we don’t really have an issue with,” Grace says. “But it shouldn’t create this kind of scenario that really subverts Pennsylvania law enforcement.”
Florida’s concealed-weapons license isn’t the only one available to residents of other states, but it’s a popular choice due to the ease of the application process and the lengthy list of states that recognize it. As a result, more than 10 percent of Florida’s 747,514 concealed-weapons licenses are held by people living outside the state.
It’s worth noting that Utah’s concealed-weapons license is arguably more popular: As of this writing 123,102 licenses – just under half the total number issued by Utah – are held by people living outside the state. Utah’s license is also available through the mail and is valid in nearly all the same states as Florida’s. The firearms-safety certification required by Utah can be taken anywhere in the country, and the license is only $65.25 – much cheaper than Florida’s license, which costs $117. Yet Florida’s name is the one attached to the odious loophole.
“It’s called the Florida loophole because we’ve only had a problem with Florida,” says Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. Jamerson says that when a shooting is committed by someone with an out-of-state license, the license is almost always one issued by Florida.
There may be more to the trend than sheer coincidence. Once a permit is issued, Florida doesn’t run additional background checks on its non-resident licensees until they try to renew. A Florida license is good for seven years, so if someone holding a Florida non-resident concealed-weapons license commits a felony in another state, it could be years before Florida officials find out about it. “Unless we read about it, we rely on law enforcement [in other states] to let us know that this person has committed a crime,” says Terry McElroy, communications director for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
By contrast, the state of Utah runs background checks on its out-of-state license holders every three months (and according to Doug Anderson, manager of the concealed-firearm program for Utah’s Bureau of Criminal Identification, its quarterly-check system is “in line for improvement”). If the licensee is discovered to have an arrest matching any disqualifying offenses, the license is suspended; upon conviction, the license is revoked.
It’s unlikely that Florida will ever adopt a system close to the one implemented in Utah, according to Wilkinson, who says it’s costly to run background checks. Plus, McElroy says police in other states know what they are supposed to do whenever someone holding a Florida non-resident concealed-weapons license commits a crime.
“Law enforcement offices across the country know that if someone with a Florida permit commits a crime, they are to notify either FDLE [Florida Department of Law Enforcement] or us,” he says. “They all know who FDLE is, and they deal with them regularly.”
Wilkinson says that on “more than one occasion” he has conveyed directly to the Philadelphia police the proper methods to report or request information regarding a Florida concealed-weapons license.
Evidently the message wasn’t passed on to Philadelphia’s Lt. Vanore, who cites communication problems as another bone of contention between Philadelphia police and Florida bureaucrats. For one thing, he says, the telephone number on the back of a Florida concealed-weapons license provided for police to verify its validity is not a 24-hour number – it only operates during business hours. “It’s 3 a.m., I have a guy sitting on a roadside, I have a gun in a police officer’s hand, and we don’t know if it’s legitimate or not,” Vanore says, describing what he calls a typical scenario.
The most recent outcry about the Florida loophole is part of a long-standing trend of Florida and firearms making headlines together.
To some, the headlines marked moments of notoriety, to others, inspiration. With the inception of its concealed-weapons program in 1987, Florida became the first state to adopt the “shall issue” model of gun licensing, which stripped local law enforcement of its discretionary authority. Since then, the same model has been adopted by 36 other states. In October 2005, Florida was the first state to pass the controversial “stand your ground” law, which allows licensed Floridians to use firearms as a first resort if they feel threatened. Less than a year later, 14 more states had passed similar legislation.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ McElroy thinks the nearly two and a half decades of concealed carry in Florida have been an underappreciated success. “Out of more than a million concealed-weapons licenses that have been issued by Florida, less than one tenth of one percent [have been] suspended or revoked,” he says. “You’re talking about law-abiding citizens who don’t, for the most part, abuse the privilege of carrying.”
He says that one doesn’t need a license to buy a gun, pointing out that “Saturday night specials” are readily available on the black market. “We know that criminals don’t have concealed-weapons licenses,” he says.
Opponents of concealed-weapons licensing point out that most shootings aren’t premeditated acts of murder by known criminals, but lapses in self-control by people who often have no prior criminal history.
“It’s the fact that they’re angry and have access to a firearm,” says Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C. “The point is, putting more guns out in public spaces results in more arguments escalating to homicide.”
The center’s website has a page called “Concealed Carry Killers,” which details 16 mass shootings in the past three years that were carried out by people with valid concealed-weapons licenses. According to the site, three of those shootings occurred in the Sunshine State. “The situation in Florida is just out of control,” Rand says.
Yet to the NRA, which has long exercised substantial power in Florida, things are very much under control. After the passage of two more NRA-backed bills by the state legislature in March, the Miami Herald ran an article titled “NRA has gotten most of what it wanted in Florida Legislature.” The story quotes state Sen. (and gun store owner) Carey Baker, D-Eustis, who, when asked about the pro-gun bills left to be passed, smiled and replied candidly: “I think we’re almost out of them.”