The Florida Senate passed a bill Tuesday to allow gun owners to carry without concealed weapons permits during emergency evacuations.
The bill passed 29-10. All 10 votes against it were from Democrats.
SB 290, filed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would allow people to carry guns without concealed weapons permits during the first 48 hours of emergency evacuations. The bill hits close to home for Floridians, because the annual threat of hurricanes makes the state prone to emergency evacuations.
The bill has gathered wide support from gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association, which called it "especially important" for Floridians.
"When you're ordered under a mandatory evacuation to take your family, pets and important documents and leave your home and other belongings behind, you should not be deprived of the ability to protect yourself and your family," read a notice sent from former NRA president Marion Hammer to members. "You should not be denied the right to take your firearms with you rather than leave them behind for looters."
Senate Democrats questioned whether the bill was actually necessary and disagreed with Brandes over its purpose.
In the bill's reading last week, Sen. Geri Thompson, D-Orlando, was curious as to how law enforcement officers would tell the difference between looters and people who lawfully own their guns.
"I would imagine the looter is looting and the evacuee is evacuating," Brandes explained, adding that looters would be charged with a number of crimes for taking someone's gun, but that was a separate issue.
Brandes and supporters of the bill cited Hurricane Katrina as one example prompting a change in legislation, because many were charged with crimes for having their guns with them after being forced to evacuate.
"Florida statute today says if [people fleeing] take that weapon with them and they carry it in a certain manner, they can be charged with a third-degree felony," Brandes explained.
The bill's House companion, HB 493, sponsored by Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, will be heard in the House in the next few weeks.