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Governor Calls Lapse In Background Checks Disturbing

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Daylina Miller/Health News Florida
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Monday questioned how the state office under fellow Republican Adam Putnam went more than a year without completing background checks used to determine if someone could get a concealed-weapons permit.

Scott's criticism came at the same time that Democratic legislators formally requested that GOP leaders in the House and Senate initiate investigations into the lapse that ultimately led the state to revoke permits from 291 people.

"It's disturbing," Scott told reporters after a campaign event in Tampa. "We all expect our government to do their job. What I've read so far is very concerning."

Putnam, the state's agriculture commissioner who is now running for governor, oversees the office responsible for processing and handing out concealed-weapons permits in the state. Florida does not allow the open carry of weapons, but more than 1.9 million residents have permits to carry guns and weapons if they are concealed.

An inspector general's report released in June 2017 — but not widely known about until last week — showed that an employee in Putnam's office failed to review applications through a national database for more than a year because she couldn't log into the system. The employee was ultimately fired and the state then revoked permits it determined had been issued to people who were ineligible for them.

Officials say the state did conduct criminal background checks, however, and last Saturday Putnam insisted that "no one's safety was put at risk." He said the fired employee's job was to review applications flagged by the national database. Putnam said he has made changes in the department to ensure it won't happen again.

"This was a very serious issue. We took immediate action," Putnam said.

Putnam called news media coverage of the lapse misleading. He said he initiated the inspector general's report that resulted in the employee's firing.

That is not clear in the inspector general's report, however.

Putnam's office, citing confidentiality laws, has refused to release the names of residents who had their permits revoked. State law, put in place at the urging of the National Rifle Association, keeps confidential the names of people who apply for and receive concealed- weapons permits.

Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, questioned whether the public records exemption should apply to people whose permits are revoked. She said Putnam's office appeared to have an "overly broad interpretation" of the exemption, and that courts have ruled it should be "narrowly construed and strictly applied."

Democratic legislators on Monday asked leaders in the House and Senate to have legislative committees investigate what happened in Putnam's office. Under the current schedule the Florida Legislature is not slated to meet again until after the November 2018 elections.

"At this point, I hope this is a sheer display of incompetence and not a willful subversion of our public safety for short-term political gain," said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a south Florida Democrat who asked the House to investigate Putnam.