Last Friday, a young Florida man was arrested and charged with aggravated assault on his girlfriend. The judge ordered him to stay away from the girlfriend while the case is pending and to surrender any firearms he may own.
The case would have been unremarkable if the fact pattern weren’t so familiar. Friday’s arrest was the third domestic violence incident the man has been involved in during just the last 18 months and the fourth time during that period police have been called because of violent or threatening behavior. The man also allegedly threatened to kill another driver during a road rage incident late last summer. Years before this recent pattern began, the man was arrested for assaulting a police officer and was the subject of a temporary restraining order for another domestic violence incident.
Oh, and this man did one other thing: On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin.
The shooting of Trayvon Martin shined a light on Florida’s so-called Stand Your Ground laws, which provide an expansive definition of self-defense and enable an individual to use deadly force even in situations when lesser force would suffice or when safe retreat is an option.
But the ever-unfolding story of George Zimmerman raises questions about another set of Florida laws—the ones deciding who is eligible to carry concealed guns. Considering his previous history of violence, why was Zimmerman legally authorized to carry a gun in 2012? And why did Zimmerman still have a special permit issued by the state of Florida to carry hidden loaded guns—right up until his most recent arrest on Friday?
The answer lies in Florida’s lax concealed gun carry laws. Under federal law, convicted felons, fugitives, seriously mentally ill persons, and certain domestic abusers are barred from possessing guns. But none of the incidents in Zimmerman’s pattern of reckless and dangerous conduct put him neatly into one of these federally prohibited categories.
That’s why most states go beyond federal law by enacting even stronger state laws that govern who is authorized to carry loaded, concealed guns throughout the state. While all states allow some form of concealed gun carrying, in many states—including some of the most populous ones, like New York and California, and even red states like Alabama—law enforcement has discretion to evaluate each application for a concealed carry permit on a case-by-case basis. It also allows for discretion and the authority to deny a permit to someone who has a lengthy history of arrests for domestic violence and other violent incidents—or someone exactly like George Zimmerman.
But Florida gives no such discretion to law enforcement. In fact, the responsibility to administer the conceal carry permit system in Florida does not fall on law enforcement but the Department of Agriculture, which in the past has proved itself incompetent at administering even the lax standards Florida has in place. A 2007 investigation by the Florida Sun Sentinel found that the state had mistakenly issued concealed gun carry permits to more than 1,400 felons—people who under federal law should not be allowed to own a gun, let alone carry one concealed around the neighborhood.
Unless you live in Florida, the state’s lax gun carry laws may not seem to be much of a concern to you. But they should be. Several other states have instituted laws as weak as—or even weaker than—Florida’s. And legislation has been introduced in Congress to make these minimal standards in Florida and similar states the law of the land.
The legislation, which is called “concealed carry reciprocity,” has been introduced in the last several Congresses and is likely to be reintroduced in the 114th Congress. It would require all states to honor concealed carry permits issued in any other state, even those issued by states with much weaker standards.
In some ways, that may sound sensible. Supporters of concealed carry reciprocity analogize carry permits to driver’s licenses, which, of course, are valid across state lines. But then imagine how many states are issuing driver’s licenses to people as reckless with cars as Zimmerman is with a gun.
Concealed carry reciprocity legislation is really a race to the bottom—forcing states to override their own public safety laws and accept a lowest common denominator standard for determining who is eligible to carry loaded guns.
Given the new makeup of Congress, we are likely to see a concealed carry reciprocity bill begin winding its way through the House and Senate later this year. Folks who want their home states to set their own standard for who can carry loaded, hidden guns in their neighborhood had better start making their voices heard. Otherwise, the George Zimmerman standard may become the law of the land.
Arkadi Gerney is a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress. Chelsea Parsons is vice president for guns and crime at the Center for American Progress. Gerney and Parsons are co-authors of “License to Kill,” a 2013 report on the intersection of concealed gun carry laws and Stand Your Ground laws.