Cerabino: Gunshine State special: Permits before background checks

Late last year, an item was inserted into the bowels of mind-numbing 98-page piece of legislation about agricultural practices in Florida.

The item from Florida’s Secretary of Agriculture and Consumer Services Adam Putnam was included near the end of Senate Bill 740. The item followed changes on how germination tests for seeds in hermetically sealed containers are conducted and the reimbursement of forestry firefighters for their licensing fees.

Putnam’s insertion was about concealed weapons permits.

OK, you might be asking what firearms regulations in the state of Florida have to do with agriculture? And shouldn’t the registration of concealed weapons permits be under the umbrella of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement?

Well, you’re not thinking of things the right way. In Florida, handguns, like oranges and grapefruits, are considered a valuable crop. We grow firearms in Florida, which is why we have 1.8 million concealed weapons permits here — more than any other state.

So, it’s not unusual in Florida to see a bill dealing with seed regulations segue into firearms.

The change in the state’s gun laws that Putnam’s office had inserted called for concealed weapons permits to be granted to applicants in cases when the state had failed to verify all the background information.

“Ninety days after the date of receipt of the completed application, if the department has not acquired final disposition or proof of restoration of civil and firearm rights, or confirmation that clarifying records are not available from the jurisdiction where the criminal history originated, the department shall issue the license in the absence of disqualifying information,” the page-87 passage read.

In other words, if Florida can’t prove you shouldn’t have a concealed weapons permit within 90 days of making an application, you get the permit. The change went on to say that if “disqualifying information” was later learned after the 90 days, then the permit would be suspended or revoked.

What’s the point of a background check if you can pass it without the check being completed? This seemed like a really bad idea, and a dangerous one, even for somebody like Putnam, who is running for governor as a self-proclaimed “proud NRA sellout.”

Putnam’s plan to relax the gun permitting requirement was followed a few months later by the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. As a result, his weapons permit rule was quietly removed from the bill.

And destined to be a forgotten footnote. But something happened last week that put things in a whole new light.

It turns out that for more than a year, Putnam and his office had been sitting on a terrible secret. It was contained in an Office of Inspector General report that was released last summer but left undisclosed to the public, only to be unearthed last week by The Tampa Bay Times.

The state report found that from February 2016 to April 2017, hundreds of thousands of Floridians were granted concealed weapons permits even though The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) administered by the FBI was not accessed by the state during those 14 months.

The reason why the required NICS criminal background check wasn’t done was because the state employee in the Division of Licensing tasked with doing the background checks, Lisa Wilde, had trouble getting the system to recognize her user ID when she logged in. And rather than fix the problem, she just ignored this background check while approving applicants.

“Wilde stated that she did not tell anyone that the NICS database had not been accessed for over a year,” the report said.

Wilde told state investigators: “I dropped the ball — I know I did that, I should have been doing it and I didn’t.”

She told the Times that she was overwhelmed with the large number of weapons permit applications she had to process and under pressure from her supervisors to make quick approvals.

With no fanfare, the internal report spelling out the lapse was issued on June 5 of last year. Wilde’s office is under Putnam’s purview. He said nothing.

But this revelation puts his subsequent move to change the concealed weapons permit laws in a new light.

State Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said staffers from Putnam’s office had asked for her support of the measure to grant concealed weapons permits before all the background checks are done.

“Asked about why such a move was necessary, the Senator said that Putnam’s representatives downplayed the motives, insisting that it was more of a housekeeping move, and not a big deal,” her office said in a prepared statement.

“These are the kind of tricks that cannot be tolerated,” Stewart said. “Lives were put in jeopardy by their attempts to conceal what had actually happened.”

Since Friday’s disclosure, Putnam’s office has tried to contain the damage by saying that Wilde has been fired and that the department has gone back and revoked 291 concealed weapons permits that were issued to gun owners who didn’t pass the NICS check belatedly done on them.

The office also pointed out that even though the FBI background checks weren’t done, the office still was able to access two other databases, the Florida Crime Information Center database and the National Crime Information Center database.

Stewart and some other lawmakers say Putnam should resign. But don’t count on it. He’s banking on being Florida’s next governor.

It’s strange how things pan out.

If the Parkland massacre didn’t occur, Putnam’s addition to the agriculture bill would have probably slipped through, which means that he would have been able to argue today that Florida law doesn’t require all the background checks to be done before issuing a gun permit anyway.

So what’s the big deal?

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