Concealed handguns pop up as issue at GOP convention

08/25/2012 11:56 PM

08/26/2012 4:49 PM

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson likes to be prepared.

So when he headed to Florida to attend this week's Republican National Convention, he had his concealed handgun with him, as he usually does.

"It's like a smoke detector. You don't know when you'll need it, but you keep fresh batteries in it anyway," said Patterson, a delegate to the convention.

As a state senator 17 years ago, Patterson carried the legislation that legalized concealed handguns in Texas. "I carry everywhere it's lawful," he said.

Medicare, Social Security, government debt and immigration will be in the spotlight during the Republican platform debate.

But the issue of allowing guns in downtown Tampa near the convention site sparked a debate of its own.

Tampa's mayor had asked that guns be banned downtown during the convention, but Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected the request.

"It is unclear how disarming law-abiding citizens would better protect them from the dangers and threats posed by those who would flout the law," Scott wrote in a letter to Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "It is at just such times that the constitutional right to self-defense is most precious and must be protected from government overreach."

The Republican convention takes place Monday to Thursday in Tampa. Democrats will meet next week in Charlotte, N.C.

People can legally continue to carry concealed handguns in both downtowns during the conventions -- but not within a secure perimeter or the convention site, which will be manned by the Secret Service. The only guns allowed inside that perimeter are those of law officers working the conventions.

"What the Florida law allows, that's what I'll do," Patterson said.

Staying safe?

Four years ago at the Republican convention in Minnesota, some protests turned violent, with reports of people throwing rocks, shattering windows of police cars and stores, and even spitting on delegates. Hoping to avoid those problems, Tampa leaders created an "event zone" and limited items that protesters and others could carry there, banning aerosol cans, glass bottles, water guns, knives and more.

Leaders set aside an official protest area, established a parade route and took measures such as limiting parades to 90 minutes and requiring groups of 50 or more that want to gather in parks to apply for permits.

But when Tampa officials asked Scott to restrict handguns, they ran into a brick wall.

"In the potentially contentious environment surrounding the RNC, a firearm unnecessarily increases the threat of imminent harm and injury to the residents and visitors of the city," Buckhorn wrote to the governor.

Scott rejected the request, saying a ban would infringe on people's rights.

"I am confident the many federal, state and local law enforcement agencies focused on the RNC will fully protect Floridians and visitors, without the need to resort to sweeping infringements on our most sacred constitutional traditions," Scott wrote.

Kory Watkins of Mansfield, who will attend the convention as a guest, said Buckhorn shouldn't have made the request in the first place.

"I think that request is out of line," he said. "They have ordered extra armed police and CIA agents to be there. Why can't the American people carry? It goes against our Constitution for them not to allow us.

"It makes me feel safer knowing people can protect themselves if an unlawful citizen or tyrant government gets out of control," he said. "That is what our Founding Fathers intended our Second Amendment to be about."

A distraction?

Patterson -- who has remained a chief defender of Texas' concealed-handgun law -- said he's not surprised that Tampa officials tried to limit the carrying of firearms.

"Mayors always do this," he said. "It's in their DNA. ... They think we are all going to die, that it's going to be a terrible thing."

But the only thing such bans do, he said, is strip law-abiding people of ways to protect themselves.

"Who would obey that law? The good guys," he said. "But the idiot carrying a gun to shoot up a crowd, you think he's going to be deterred? No. All you've done is create a target-rich environment."

D.A. Sharpe is among the North Texans simply looking forward to attending the convention.

"Handguns are about the farthest thing from my mind about the National Republican Convention," said Sharpe, an alternate delegate from Aurora who is representing the 12th Congressional District. "What is in my mind is the opportunity to participate in the grass roots of the people having something to do with shaping the Republican Party platform and engendering enthusiasm for our candidates for office."

Weatherford delegate Zan Prince, who heads the Parker County Republican Party, praised Scott's decision and said the entire issue of whether to allow concealed handguns at the convention is moot.

"The gun discussion is a distraction from the real issue," said Prince, who represents the 12th District. "Our country needs and deserves a president who understands that our country is built on the principle of individual liberties, that creating class warfare and interfering in the entrepreneurial spirit of our citizens has no place in any elected official's dialogue or agenda."

She and other local residents say they don't want Florida officials to trample on their personal rights.

"We have the freedom to exercise our Second Amendment right to bear arms, and I don't believe that any government should desire to suppress that liberty," said Justin Machacek, an alternate delegate from Fort Worth representing the 12th District who serves on the national advisory board of the Evangelicals for Ron Paul Coalition.

'Not afraid'

Some say they can't believe the gun topic has become an issue.

"You can't suspend someone's civil rights just because a political convention is coming to town," said Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. "Republicans are not afraid of the Second Amendment."

Others say the proposal to limit the carrying of handguns stemmed from the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida this year.

Martin, 17, was fatally shot Feb. 26 while walking home from a convenience store in Sanford, Fla. A neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, 28, followed him and told police that Martin, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, looked suspicious. Zimmerman said he shot in self-defense after Martin attacked him.

"I think the mayor is probably skittish because of the Trayvon Martin case," said Charna Blumberg of Arlington, a delegate representing the 6th Congressional District.

"I'm sure he would consider it a major embarrassment for his city if some violent act occurred during the convention. However, the possibility that something might happen is not sufficient reason to prevent everyone from exercising their legal rights.

"I am fully confident that all the various law enforcement agencies involved in protecting the convention will be able to keep the attendees safe."

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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