Florida agencies tangle in a concealed weapons ‘quagmire’

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Die-in against gun violence, Tampa. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News (12 June 2018).

By Jim Saunders – ©2022 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — In what it described as a “legal quagmire,” the state agency that issues concealed-weapons licenses has sued the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to try to obtain information about why a woman was flagged as ineligible for a license.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Leon County circuit court, involves the interplay between the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and FDLE in issuing licenses and conducting background checks. It also focuses on a ruling last year by the 1st District Court of Appeal that required the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to have more information to back up the denial of at least some license applications.

While the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issues licenses, FDLE conducts background checks of applicants through a federal database known as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. If background checks show applicants are ineligible for concealed-weapons licenses, FDLE notifies the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The lawsuit stems from an application submitted by a woman, identified only by the initials M.S. After conducting a background check, FDLE notified the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Licensing that M.S. was ineligible for a concealed-weapons license because of “mental health” reasons, according to the lawsuit.

M.S. disputed the denial and requested a hearing at the state Division of Administrative Hearings. As part of the administrative case, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services sought additional information from FDLE about the mental health issues that would make M.S. ineligible.

But FDLE declined to provide the additional information, which it said was protected from disclosure under a federal rule, according to the lawsuit. Also, FDLE said the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was not a law-enforcement agency and that providing the information could jeopardize FDLE’s access to the federal background-check system.

In the lawsuit filed Friday, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services wants a circuit judge to require FDLE to comply with a subpoena that seeks the additional information.

While describing itself and the FDLE as “partners in processing applications for concealed weapon licenses,” the licensing agency said it could be “placed in the untenable position of being required to issue a concealed weapon license to an individual even though the top law enforcement agency in Florida has advised that the applicant is a firearm prohibited person for mental health reasons. It is a public safety issue.”

A key underlying issue in the dispute is a June 2021 ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal that said the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services improperly denied a concealed-weapons license for a man who said his civil rights were restored after a 1969 conviction in Illinois.

The appeals court said the licensing agency should not have relied only on a check of NICS in denying the application. It described the NICS result as a “starting point” and said it “may be a sign that points toward prohibition, but it is not prohibition itself.”

With M.S. challenging the denial of her application, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services says it needs more information to comply with the requirement of the appeals-court ruling, which involved a man identified by the initials R.C.

The lawsuit said the licensing agency and FDLE are trying to comply with state law, but the process has “become stifled by the newly evolved legal quagmire and has resulted in the present impasse.”

“Now that the Division (of Licensing) knows FDLE, the top law enforcement agency in the state, considers M.S. to be a firearm-prohibited person, it produces an absurd result to require the division to issue the concealed weapon license only because FDLE will not disclose the information required by R.C. (the 2021 case),” said the lawsuit, which was assigned Monday to Circuit Judge John Cooper.

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