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National Politics

You can now carry your gun at Florida State Fair

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:34 PM

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TAMPA -

Following complaints by a gun rights group, and a law passed by the Florida Legislature last year, you can now carry your gun at the Florida State Fair.

"We have changed the policy to comply with the state law – it allows a person with a concealed weapon permit to come in with a firearm," said Charles Pesano, executive director of the State Fair Authority. "We've changed some signs to reflect that."

Instead of "No Weapons," the signs now say, "No Unlawful Weapons."

The policy changed Sunday, after Florida Carry Inc. and Marion Hammer of the Florida NRA complained to state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, said Sean Caranna of Florida Carry, a gun rights group.

At the same time, local members of the group complained to the State Fair Authority after a member of Florida Carry was denied admittance Saturday.

Pesano said the authority decided after meetings Sunday to change its policy.

"It was brought to our attention, and we quickly determined we wanted to be in compliance with the state law – we acted within minutes."

It's the first time in his experience, which covers eight state fairs, that fairgoers have been allowed to carry weapons.

"Since I've been here, the policy has been not to allow weapons on the fairgrounds just through good common sense," Pesano said.

The change was required by a 25-year-old law in which the state Legislature took control of all firearms regulations, declaring local government ordinances void -- an act known as "pre-emption."

But the law wasn't generally enforced, said Arthur Hayhoe of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

"That law had no penalties so a lot of local governments ignored it," he said. "Some local governments dropped some laws, and a lot of them kept their laws."

In 2011 however, the Legislature passed a new law imposing tough penalties -- fines of $5,000 against officials of any local government that enforces a gun control law, along with removal from office by the governor and provisions for individuals and organizations to sue the local government for damages and legal fees.

Caranna said the gun rights groups contacted Putnam before the fair and were told the policy would be changed.

"They've been violating this law for nearly 25 years, and we wanted to make sure it didn't happen again this year," he said. "Unfortunately, it did happen."

A Putnam spokesman couldn't provide any comment from the agriculture commissioner Tuesday afternoon.

Scott Barrish of Plant City, a member of Florida Carry, sent complaints to Putnam and Pesano after another member, Charles D. Bingham, said on the group's Facebook page that he was searched and denied entry to the fair while carrying a gun Saturday.

Barrish, a Republican candidate for Hillsborough County clerk of court, said he went to the fair Monday, carrying his Springfield Armory 1911 Range Officer semi-automatic pistol.

Barrish said he carries a firearm "everywhere that it's legal for me to do so," because, "I take responsibility for my own safety and that of my family and friends – law enforcement can't be everywhere every single second."

But Hayhoe said the law "has created a lot of problems, and there are a lot of people angry about it – people can't post their land for no firearms.

"Local governments can't do anything – they can't pass or enforce any law that even has the word gun in it."

Last month, the Hernando County commissioners cited the law in reluctantly allowing a Spring Hill homeowner Paul Hargis of Hague Court to sell guns from his home, despite objections from the neighborhood.

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Major Al Greco, in charge of security for the fair, said in past years, officers made anywhere from two or three to 15 or 20 arrests during the fair, mostly for fighting, drug or weapon possession.

He said he didn't know how many had been made this year.


wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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