A House committee on Thursday expanded a National Rifle Association-backed measure that would allow people to carry concealed weapons during emergencies even if they don't have a license to carry.
The revised measure (HB 209) is now headed to the House floor for a full vote although a Senate companion is stalled.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the proposal with a 17-1 vote on Thursday despite concerns about who can make the emergency declaration and how long individuals can carry concealed weapons after the order has been issued.
The bills, opposed by the Florida Sheriffs Association, create an exemption to a state concealed-carry law by allowing individuals who have not qualified for a license to keep a firearm on their person "while complying with a mandatory evacuation" during an event such as a riot, hurricane or wildfire.
An amendment added to the House bill on Thursday would allow the emergency order to come from "a local authority" in addition to the governor.
Miami Democrat Rep. Kionne McGhee, who cast the lone vote against the bill, said the amendment "makes me nervous" by potentially creating "local militias" during emergencies.
"We no longer need a mandatory evacuation order to allow for individuals who do not have conceal permits to carry," McGhee said. "We just simply need someone on the local level to simply say that they have the right and authority to do so."
But Rep. Matt Gaetz, an ardent supporter of the state's controversial Stand Your Ground law, argued that the amendment creates more protections for gun owners.
"To the point of a riot or some other occurrence which would lead a local authority to declare a state of emergency," the Fort Walton Beach Republican said, "gosh, those seem to be just the circumstances when you wouldn't want to have somebody separated from their firearm when they're trying to get their family out of harm's way."
Several Democrats objected that the proposal is vague about how long someone could carry a weapon without a license and even about what types of guns can be carried.
An individual without a license could be complying with an evacuation order for days or months, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, said.
The intent of the law is to require the conceal carry only for the time the individual is traveling from their home to where they are relocating after an evacuation, bill sponsor Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, said.
Fitzenhagen said later she would consider amending the bill on the floor to "more precisely articulate" how long an unlicensed individual could carry a concealed weapon.
Gov. Rick Scott and the National Guard this week came out in support of the plan after NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer took issue with objections to the bill expressed by the chief lawyer for the Florida Department of Military Affairs. The agency is overseen by Scott, who is seeking re-election this year.
Meanwhile, the sheriffs' opposition has helped to keep the measure on hold in the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space, and Domestic Security Committee, where bill sponsor Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has twice delayed a vote. At least one Republican, Sen. Charlie Dean, a former Citrus County sheriff, has said he would vote against the bill, also opposed by Democrats.
"There is a difference between owning a firearm and carrying one concealed on your person," Electra Bustle, a lobbyist for the Florida Sheriffs Association, told the House committee on Thursday. "Owing a firearm is a right. Carrying concealed is a privilege and it is a privilege that is earned by showing a higher degree of training and proficiency with a firearm."