Gun owners would be able to apply for concealed weapons licenses at their local tax collector's offices under a National Rifle Association-backed measure approved unanimously by the Senate Agriculture Committee on Monday.
Florida has more than a million concealed weapons licenses and the number is growing. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has eight regional field offices where gun owners can apply for the permits in person, but demand is so high that the wait at some locales is six months for an appointment.
"It's a convenience for the citizens of the state of Florida to be able to come into their own county in buildings that their taxes helped pay for. Whether it's paying their taxes or getting a driver's license, it's a courtesy to the taxpayers," said Indian River County Tax Collector Carole Jean Jordan.
Under the proposal, tax collectors would be able to charge an extra $22 on top of the $70 fee for new applications and an additional $12 for renewals, which cost $60. The county officials already process photos, fingerprints and other things associated with the concealed carry applications. The costs don't include $42 for background checks, which will still be handled by the agriculture department.
Making it easier for gun owners to get concealed weapons licenses, which require some training, could make Floridians safer, said NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer.
"They become a little more conscious of the responsibility of gun ownership," Hammer, who estimates that there are 8 million gun owners in Florida, said. "I think it can't hurt."
The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services offices in Fort Walton Beach, Jacksonville, Doral, Orlando, Punta Gorda, Tallahassee, Tampa and West Palm Beach are two-hour drives for some gun owners, many of whom prefer to hand over their paperwork in person because of past delays processing the applications by mail.
Clerks at the regional offices can also ensure that applications contain all of the items necessary to be processed, another time-saver. Applications now take about 35 days to process once received by the department, according to spokesman Aaron Keller. Several years ago, the department had a backlog of up to six months to get the applications processed, which by law are required to be completed within 90 days.
Start-up costs for the program would be about $800,000, including 11 new workers, to get the operation up-and-running in 30 counties, according to Keller. The money would come from a trust fund made up of the concealed weapons license fees, which now has a balance of about $26 million. The department would enter into agreements with the tax collectors, who would not be required to participate.
?It?s just kind of a natural thing for us to go into, after doing drivers licenses. We?re a very secure facility. Our clerks are deputized,? Jordan said.