The National Rifle Association has helped shape Florida gun policy for a long time, most visibly by helping to craft the state's now famous Stand Your Ground law.
But in addition to helping craft legislation, the NRA enjoys another role as state-sanctioned gun educators. In fact, the NRA shows up three times within a separate law governing the requirements for getting a permit to carry a concealed weapon. This dual role seems to paint a cozy relationship between Florida and the country's largest gun proponent, raising eyebrows among observers about the power of special interests in Tallahassee.
State Sen. Chris Smith, D-Ft. Lauderdale, referred to the power of the NRA in influencing state policy at the beginning of the 2013 legislative session, explaining that getting any gun control measures through the legislature would be extremely unlikely.
“Marion Hammer will ensure that we don’t,” Smith said. Hammer is the NRA’s lobbyist in Florida.
Every one of the more than a million gun permit holders in Florida is required to demonstrate what the law calls “competence with a firearm.” And that’s where the NRA comes in.
You can demonstrate “competence” in a number of ways, one of the most common is to take a class. These classes have to be taught by an instructor certified by one of two groups, the State of Florida or the NRA. The law actually lists the NRA first.
State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, said: “I’ve always thought the relationship between the state and the NRA is too cozy. This law is just another example of that.”
But state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who has been vocal about gun rights, downplayed the NRA’s relationship with state. He said the NRA’s role in supplying firearms instructors isn’t even something worth discussing. “I don’t see anything wrong with that collaboration.”
Allen Lill is an NRA training counselor. Lill trains people who will become instructors. He agrees with Baxley that the NRA being able to certify instructors isn’t a problem, but added that there is a problem with the way the state treats these certifications. He said after people get certified, they can teach whatever and however they want.
“The State of Florida don’t care about the class, just the [instructor's] certification,” Lill said. “Some people end up with poor quality training. The guys at the gun shows put them through a 40-minute lecture, have them shoot one round into a bucket and they sign them off for the state.”
Lill points out that these are not NRA courses, but the instructors are certified by the NRA. This means the 40 minute-lecture and the firing-one-shot-into-a-bucket would qualify as showing competence with a firearm.
Mark Richardson with the NRA’s training division said their classes have very specific ways they are supposed to be taught and instructors can add content, but “no matter where you take it, Tallahassee Florida, Rochester New York or Spokane Washington, it should be the same class.”
Bullard says he hopes “that the NRA would be proactive in making sure that quality standards are met.”
But Richardson said they cannot provide oversight for instructors certified by the NRA: “We have almost 100,000 instructors nationwide. We have five people in the training department here at headquarters. So the logistics of going out and spot checking, you just can’t do that.”
The agency that handles concealed weapons permitting, Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, also does not provide any sort of oversight for instructors.
Ken Wilkinson, assistant director at the department’s Division of Licensing, said even if they wanted to, there are legal obstacles. “None of these trainers is under the regulatory authority of our division.”
Currently, the Florida Legislature does not delegate to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services the authority to regulate or restrict the issuing of instructor licenses so they do not have control over the certification process or what those instructors teach.
As the law stands, the only body that has any control over all the instructors is the state legislature, which is heavily controlled by legislators like Baxley, who says, “I don’t see a problem with the present certification process.”