Florida Becomes No. 1 In Concealed Weapons Permits

Florida has hit a milestone: It has become the first state to issue 1 million concealed weapons permits. Some Florida officials say that's a testament to an efficient process and Floridians' love of the Second Amendment. Others say the law is too lax and an invitation to violence.

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After the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the country renewed a debate over gun control. At the same time, Florida quietly marked a milestone. It became the first state to issue more than a million permits allowing residents to carry concealed weapons. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It's the holiday season, and at American Armory, a gun store in Homestead, Florida, the atmosphere is festive.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

ALLEN: Several people are crowded into the small shop. Some are looking at hunting rifles. Others are filling out paperwork to purchase a handgun. Store owner Javier Alonso says it's not just the Christmas rush.

JAVIER ALONSO: People are concerned that they're not going to have the ability to purchase weapons in the near future because of impending gun bans.

ALLEN: In Florida and across the nation, gun shops reported a spike in sales in the days following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Alonso says he's also seen more people applying for permits to carry concealed weapons.

ALONSO: The reason for that I suspect is, obvious, people feel the need to defend themselves with weapons. Apparently, relying on the police is insufficient.

ALLEN: On the day after the Newtown shootings, applications in Florida for concealed weapons permits doubled to nearly 7,000, and state officials say they were already coming in at a record pace.

SECRETARY ADAM PUTNAM: It is a privilege to be with you and to share and acknowledge an important event.

ALLEN: Earlier this month, Florida's Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam called a news conference to announce the state was about to issue its one millionth active concealed weapons permit. In a state with about 14 million people over age 21, that's one permit for every 14 adults. Putnam acknowledged it's a large number.

PUTNAM: The fact that so many Floridians have obtained it and so many Floridians have responsibly used that license is a testament to our neighbors, to fellow Floridians that they've taken advantage of this opportunity, and they've used it wisely and responsibly.

ALLEN: Putnam says he called the news conference because of media interest in the number of concealed weapons. Two days later, the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, raised questions across the nation about gun control laws. But at least in Florida, Putnam says concealed carry permits have caused few problems.

PUTNAM: And with only 0.3 percent of licenses having been revoked for inappropriate use, I think the statistics support that.

ALLEN: On concealed weapons, Florida has led the way. Fifteen years ago, it became one of the first states to require authorities to issue permits to anyone who qualifies. Since then, most states have followed suit. The National Rifle Association successfully lobbied for relaxed concealed weapons permits. The NRA also a few years later helped write Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which allows people confronted with a threat to respond with deadly force.

STATE SENATOR CHRIS SMITH: Now, when you put all that together, that does create what I've been calling a culture of violence within the state.

ALLEN: Florida Democratic state Senator Chris Smith is calling for changes both in the Stand Your Ground law and the state's concealed weapons policies. Right now, Florida's Agriculture Department handles concealed weapons permits. But because it's not a law enforcement agency, it's unable to screen applicants using the FBI's crime database. Smith says he's working with department officials to change that and to also begin checking state medical records to screen out applicants with mental health issues.

SMITH: If we miss one or two people, that's one or two people too many that we've allowed to get a gun and go out into the public streets. I'm more concerned that we check under every rock, check every database there is before we give someone that awesome responsibility.

ALLEN: In the wake of the recent school shooting, Smith says there seems to be more openness in Tallahassee to tightening screening for concealed weapons permits, but he's realistic, saying the NRA has a strong influence in Florida's legislature and passing any legislation tightening gun restrictions will be a struggle. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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