Nothing says “welcome” like the chance to carry a concealed weapon.
If you’re going anywhere near next week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, don’t even think about bringing a water gun, a glass bottle, an aerosol can, a padlock, or even a really long rope.
However, if you’d like to walk around with a handgun on your person, feel free to go right ahead. All that’s required is a concealed-weapons permit valid in Florida, something roughly seven-million Americans possess.
The disparity stems from a standoff between the city’s mayor and the governor of Florida, who rejected Tampa’s request to prohibit guns from the areas surrounding the convention for the duration of the event. Under Florida law, local governments cannot impose such restrictions themselves.
Now, as thousands of delegates, journalists, and protesters start to converge upon the city, local officials say they’re worried about the potential risks involved in having guns as part of the mix.
“We were concerned that if you had a lot of conflicting groups, we didn’t want things to escalate,” said James Shimberg, the City Attorney in Tampa. “We just thought it would be a safer environment if there were no firearms.”
For gun-rights advocates, however, the city’s desire to ban guns from the areas around the convention was an unacceptable restriction on their legal right to carry weapons. Rick Scott, Florida’s Republican governor, wrote in a letter to Tampa’s mayor that “it is unclear how disarming law-abiding citizens would better protect them” from danger. “It is at just such times that the constitutional right to self-defense is most precious.”
By holding the convention in Tampa, Republicans are hoping to boost their chances in a crucial battleground state coveted by both parties in November’s election. Inside the convention venue and its immediate perimeter, the Secret Service is in charge of security and civilians will not be allowed to carry weapons.
Beyond the area entrusted to the Secret Service, however, it’s a different story. As with every party convention, thousands of demonstrators are expected in Tampa, the majority of them peaceful. In case the environment grows heated, the city has taken elaborate precautions. It passed a temporary ordinance banning everything from large pieces of lumber to “super soaker” water guns and umbrellas from the areas surrounding the convention.
It also didn’t want the additional risks posed by people carrying guns. But in Florida, only the state government can enact such limitations. So in May, Tampa’s mayor, Bob Buckhorn, wrote a letter to the governor asking him to use his executive power to institute a temporary ban on handguns in the area. The answer was a swift “no.”
The irony of being able to ban glass bottles but not handguns in the vicinity of the convention is not lost on city leaders. “It’s very frustrating,” said Lisa Monteliore, a member of Tampa’s city council, who said she was concerned about what could happen in a situation where thousands of protesters are expected and where passions run high.
“Even responsible individuals in a highly charged situation make mistakes.”
In Florida, however, any restriction on the rights of gun owners is the stuff of political dynamite. The state has the highest number of valid concealed-weapon permits – 900,000 – of any in the nation (and through agreements with other states, an additional six million people can carry their weapons in Florida). It is also home to the controversial “Stand Your Ground” Law, which gives citizens a broad right to self-defence.
Bo Dietl, a former New York detective, runs the security and investigations firm Beau Dietl & Associates. He has consulted on security arrangements for prior Republican conventions and sees merit in Florida’s stance. “What if I’m the owner of a restaurant with a legal permit?” he asked. “You can’t prevent me from carrying just because the convention is down the street.”
Experts say they’re not surprised by Florida’s response to Tampa’s demand. “Florida has been a leader in the gun rights movement,” noted Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at the University of California. The state was one of the first to embrace more relaxed rules for carrying concealed weapons, he said. Local officials who adopt their own measures on guns can face fines or removal from office, according to a state law passed last year.
Mayor Buckhorn, a Democrat, used to hold a concealed-weapons permit himself. He has repeatedly expressed his displeasure at the way his hands are tied. “Isn’t this the stupidest damn discussion?” the mayor said at a talk earlier this year. “If you think about it, I’m going to ban squirt guns, but I can’t ban handguns. I wonder sometimes if the NRA hasn’t hijacked the Florida legislature.”
Representatives of the National Rifle Association didn’t respond to requests for comment.