By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - In a crisis situation or evacuation for natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires, people with no criminal record would be allowed to carry a firearm without a permit, under a bill approved Friday by the Florida House of Representatives.
"The bells of liberty are surely ringing throughout Florida today," said Representative Heather Dawes Fitzenhagen, a Fort Myers Republican who sponsored the bill lifting permit requirements for concealed weapons in an emergency declared by the governor or local authorities.
"By passing this bill, you will ensure that no Floridian, in lawful possession of a firearm, must leave it behind."
The House voted 80-36 to send the bill (HB 209) to the state Senate, where a companion bill is ready for a floor vote that would put the measure on Governor Rick Scott's desk later this month.
The Republican-run legislature has been undeterred by nationwide controversy over Florida's gun laws. The House defeated an effort to repeal the state's "stand your ground" self-defense law in committee prior to the session, and last week sent the governor a bill that would allow citizens to brandish weapons or fire "warning shots" to fend off an attack.
Florida has some of the most lenient gun laws in the United States and state records show that about 8 percent of adults are licensed to carry a concealed weapon.
The Florida Sheriffs Association and some other law-enforcement lobbyists opposed the bill, which had the backing of the National Rifle Association.
"We don't want to kill the bill, we want to clarify it," said Duval County Sheriff John Rutherford, arguing that it does not spell out what constitutes an evacuation. "Does it mean when you're moving out, when you check into your hotel?"
Representative Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat and retired New York City transit policeman, said guns in hurricane shelters could be dangerous for people already under stress.
"They will face a different reality. You are talking about introducing concealed firearms into an environment that is already teeming with tension," he said. "I hope that tragedy will not be a byproduct of our decision here today."
Fitzenhagen said her bill would not allow convicted felons, on anyone else legally forbidden to own a gun, to carry weapons during an evacuation. The bill also applies to non-lethal stun guns, pepper spray and other defensive implements.
Representative Neil Combee, a Republican, told of volunteering to help two days after Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida in 1992. He said citizens in a chaotic situation should be allowed to keep weapons for self defense, properly secured in their vehicles or belongings.
"When the power lines are down, communication lines are down, your home has been damaged or destroyed, and you need to get out in a hurry, the last thing you need to worry about is being charged with a crime because you're taking maybe one of your most valuable possessions with you," said Combee.
(Editing by David Adams and Gunna Dickson)