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Gun owners welcome anonymity

On July 1, information on who has concealed weapon permits in Florida is no longer open to the public.

Published June 16, 2006

On any given business day, Thomas S. Johnson might be carrying a loaded Walther PPK or 9mm Beretta as he goes about his job as chief executive of Tampa’s Global Imaging Systems Inc.

William F. Ohrt, on the other hand, abides by the no-gun policy at Walter Industries Inc. in Tampa where he is chief financial officer, even though Ohrt, like Johnson, has a concealed weapon permit.

Former Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice, who is now a state House member and Republican candidate for attorney general, likes to keep people guessing.

“Everywhere I go, people say, “Are you carrying a gun, sheriff?’” said Rice, who does not have a concealed weapon permit. “I say, 'You just keep wondering.’”

Starting two weeks from today , the public will have no choice but to wonder whether bosses, neighbors or politicians are packing heat. Thanks to a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jeb Bush this month, the identity of concealed weapon permit holders will become exempt from the state’s public records law July 1.

(There is no public database of firearms owners in Florida. However until July 1, the names and addresses of people licensed to carry concealed weapons are made public upon request.)

About 380,000 Floridians have a permit to carry concealed weapons, with the number of new permits up substantially since the Sept. 11 attacks. So far this year, more than 50,000 first-time permits have been approved, more than double the number in 2001.

Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association’s lobbyist in Tallahassee, said applications will rocket even higher once the database of permit holders is closed to the public.

“It’s going to go up considerably now that people know they won’t see their name, address and birth date in the newspaper or on a TV station’s Web site if they apply,” she said.

High-profile permit-holders in Florida include: Charles Bronson, head of the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which issues the permits; retired General Tommy Franks, who now sits on the board of Outback Steakhouse’s corporate parent; Tampa Bay Buccaneer Dan Buenning and Donald J. Trump Jr., son of the real estate developer.

Though Senate candidate and U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris took the course required for a concealed weapon permit, the paperwork has yet to be filed. Of the five members of Congress who represent parts of the Tampa Bay area, one has a permit: Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville. She got a permit after an incident while she was a state senator and awoke to several young men rocking her car at a parking lot in Chiefland around midnight on a drive to Tallahassee.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, an organization supported by newspapers including the St. Petersburg Times, said her group has no problem with people’s right to carry concealed weapons.

“But this new law has nothing whatsoever to do with the right to own a gun,” she said. “It has everything to do with the public’s right to make sure the state is doing what it should be doing in giving concealed weapon permits only to those people who have jumped through all the hoops to obtain that special right.”

Though Democratic state senator and candidate for attorney general Walter “Skip” Campbell of Fort Lauderdale voted for closing access to the permit database, he said he now feels otherwise.

“I think those records should be open,” said Campbell, who got a permit to carry a 9mm Beretta after receiving death threats a few years ago. “Maybe it’s better people know; then they won’t try to mess with me.”

Many concealed weapon permit holders, however, agree with the NRA, which lobbied vigorously for the bill’s passage.

Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer and the only gubernatorial candidate with a concealed weapon permit, declined to discuss how often he carries a gun, or what kind. “It’s good to have sensitive information private,” he said.

State Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, the only candidate for Florida’s chief financial officer with a permit and a veteran of nine years in the Navy, was likewise circumspect. “I exercise my right not to share that with anyone,” Johnson said when asked what kind of gun he carries and when.

For Ohrt, the executive with Walter Industries, it’s a matter of following the rules.

“If you’ve been to the instructional class, you know the No. 1 rule is never to discuss it (the concealed weapon permit) with anyone, anytime,” he said. “It’s a potential irritant and might make people feel uncomfortable.”

Other executives were more candid about their rationale for getting the permits. Peter Vosotas, president and chief executive of Nicholas Financial Inc. in Clearwater, said he has had a permit to carry a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver for about six years.

“We have offices throughout the state of Florida, and I’m often in the car alone at night,” Vosotas said. “I felt it would be nice to have an extra measure of safety. And I like this gun because you just pull the trigger like in the Roy Rogers movies.”Global Imaging’s Johnson began carrying a concealed weapon several years ago, when the public company he founded was increasingly in the news and Tampa was getting a reputation for carjacking.

“I carry it in my car loaded, and I bring it into work,” said Johnson, a former Marine who called himself a “trained killer.” “I don’t know if any of my employees are armed, but if they have a military and shooting background, that’s okay.”

Johnson, who said his Walther PPK was the same model carried by the fictional spy James Bond, was pleased access to the permit holder database will be closed. But he doesn’t think the availability of that information made him more or less of a target.

“I don’t think the bad guys get on the Internet to see if I have a weapon,” he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at or (727) 892-2996. Alex Leary can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.

[Last modified June 16, 2006, 22:04:42]

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