Civil Discourse

Searching for Common Ground on Gun Laws

We asked State Rep. Greg Steube and Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight to sit down with editor Pam Daniel to discuss two proposed gun bills that failed during the recent legislative session but are expected to be filed again next year.

By Pam Daniel June 22, 2016 Published in the July 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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State Rep. Greg Steube

Daniel: Some 1.4 million Floridians have concealed weapon permits, and those numbers have been increasing rapidly. Rep. Steube, this spring, you proposed allowing people to carry concealed guns on university campuses, and you supported a bill proposed by someone else to allow open carry throughout Florida. Those bills didn’t pass, but we’re likely to see some version of them in the future.

Steube: You will absolutely see them again.

Daniel: Why do you want to allow concealed weapons on college campuses?

Steube: The media has [interpreted] this as kids are going to be carrying guns. But in Florida, to have a concealed- carry permit you have to be 21 years or older. There’s no reason to deny a law-abiding, concealed-carry permit holder from carrying just because they’ve crossed this fictitious line between here and New College, or the State College of Florida, or the University of South Florida.

Daniel: Why do people need guns on campus?

Steube: Gunman terrorists target gun-free zones. The Dark Knight shooter [wrote in] his journal that he was going to attack an airport, but he didn’t because of [its] security. There were seven different movie theaters within a four-mile radius of his home. Only one of those theaters was a gun-free zone, and he hit [that] one. 

Knight: How is that going to pan out when a deputy shows up with his gun out? What if we end up shooting the good guy? Are [the civilians with guns] trained like a police officer is trained? Can they look through the chaos that’s going on? Can [they] get up close and kill somebody? If they can’t, they’d better not have a gun because it can get used [against] them.

Steube: I should be able to defend myself whether I’m sitting here, at a mall, or on a college campus. I’ve gone through the requirements required by state law to carry my gun.

Daniel: The proposal has been opposed by most college presidents and campus police.  Why not leave security up to the colleges?

Steube: These bills are not about security on campus. I’m not deputizing a [civilian] police force. This is about a concealed weapon permit holder being able to defend himself in case he needs to. I’m not going to run to [take out] a mass shooter unless [he] is near me. Cops can’t be in every place. Sandy Hook is a great example. They had a ton of security at that school. It took the cops four minutes to get into the building, and in that time [the shooter] had killed 20 kids, six administrators and himself. I can guarantee you that principal wished she had a gun at that point. She tried to physically stop him from coming in, and she got shot.

Daniel: We had two writers who got concealed gun permits. One did 45 minutes of target practice, and the only training the other got was to point a gun with blanks at a target and take one shot. That raises questions of whether people with a concealed permit have adequate training.

Knight: There can never be enough training. We [police officers] train all the time. We just built a shoot house to [train] our individuals in more stressful situations. But [it] would be a struggle politically to tell the 1.4 million concealed weapon permit holders in the state that they have to do more training.

Steube: I don’t think it’s necessary.

Daniel: Some people believe that allowing guns on campus could have other unintended effects. In Texas, the University of Houston warned faculty they may want to be “careful discussing sensitive topics, drop certain topics from your curriculum, don’t go there if you sense anger, limit student access off hours, only meet that student in controlled circumstances.”

Steube: That’s ridiculous. Are there assaults occurring on college campuses when somebody comes in and says, “Oh, you’re going to get a bad grade?” No, there are not.

Daniel: But we haven’t had a culture of carrying guns on college campuses before this.

Steube: You can carry in your car in Florida. So if I was that pissed off with my college professor, I would just walk back to my car, get [my gun], and walk back. But it doesn’t happen. The opposition says, “Oh, a 21-year-old [will go] drinking and then he’s going to start shooting people.” That would be occurring now if that were going to happen.

Daniel: If somebody wanted to do it, they wouldn’t care about gun laws anyway?

Steube: No! Name one [shooter] that has cared about gun laws. Criminals are going to commit crimes, and you’re never going to be able to prevent that. Otherwise [Sheriff Knight] wouldn’t have a job.

Knight: He’s totally accurate. They’re going to find a way to get a gun to murder somebody if they want to do it.

Daniel: Let’s talk about open carry. Some 45 states now allow people with permits to openly carry guns. Rep. Steube supports the idea of Florida becoming one of those states, and Sheriff Knight has said he has reservations.

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Sheriff Tom Knight

Knight: There’s a lot of variation in the laws. In [rural] Pennsylvania it’s open carry, but in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh you can’t [carry openly]. If Florida created an open carry law, Sarasota’s commissioners wouldn’t have the ability [to opt out of the law]. The Florida Legislature has [prohibited] that. 

Steube: If you’re going to have a firearms law in the state, it needs to be a statewide policy.

Knight: Our state [is] so big. We’re the third-most populated state in the nation. Holmes County is agricultural and distinctively different from Sarasota. I carry a gun for a living. I like to shoot. I like to hunt. I’m a gun person. [But] we live in a community that is driven by tourism. How is this going to look in March with guns on the beaches? You can have alcohol on Siesta Key Beach. [Now you would have] alcohol with guns. I don’t know how that’s going to mix.

Daniel: In Texas, private businesses can opt out of the law. And so many businesses have opted out that some say it has actually ended up supporting the anti-gun movement. In Florida, would you want businesses to have that option? 

Steube: Yes. They have that now [with concealed gun holders].

Knight: We believe at the Sheriff’s office that concealed carry is great for self-defense. When you open carry, you’re more apt to be the first target of the gunman.

Daniel: Say you go to a public meeting and someone who seems aggressive has a gun at his waist. How do you balance people’s right to feel safe in public places with gun rights?

Steube: That [the right to feel safe] is not a legal right at all. And 6 to 7 percent of people are carrying right now; you just don’t know that they’re carrying.

Daniel: What about the fringe element that loves to parade their guns and show them off aggressively?

Steube: They were going to put in an amendment [to the open carry] bill that you couldn’t be overly aggressive. You can’t pull it out and threaten.

Knight: It creates difficulty for us because then we’re going to be the judge when we get there. Are we going to violate somebody’s civil rights? Who defines inappropriate or aggressive? We might tell someone they were saying something overly aggressive and the person could reply, “That’s my First Amendment right to say whatever I want to.” And that’s true. In Tallahassee, if they can’t get a bill right the first time, they go back and fix it over two or three years. When you talk about guns, you can’t pass it now and fix it later. You’re messing with people’s lives.

Daniel: There’s so much at stake with a gun. It’s not like a bullwhip or knife.

Knight: I think [these laws] are more about a Second Amendment purist conversation, but I see it with practicality. I don’t want to see a 23-year-old, attractive female in a bikini on Siesta Key Beach drinking a beer with a .357 on her hip.

Daniel: So the real-life consequences concern you more?

Knight: Sometimes you’ve got to protect people from themselves. My job is to protect this county. We don’t need unintended consequences. The state of Florida has the lowest crime rate in over 40 years. [Sarasota had] the greatest crime rate reduction in Florida of populations of more than 100,000 citizens. I don’t want to let that go.

Daniel: How do Florida sheriffs come down on these laws?

Steube: The majority of sheriffs supported campus carry, and only a handful supported open.

Knight: The issue is really the bill. I’m sure they’re going to come back with another bill, and the sheriffs will look at it and see if it’s something we could work with. We’re not totally opposed to people having guns.

Steube: I’m not going to be in the House next year. So I have to win a Senate race, but whether I am in the Senate or not, you will see those bills again. 

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