Flagler County residents love their concealed weapons: As of the end of July, there were 8,170 concealed weapons holders in the county, or 8.24 concealed carry permits for every 100 residents. That’s the 10th highest rate out of 67 counties in Florida (Okaloosa, Monroe and Nassau top the list, in that order). The average in the state is just over 7 per 100 residents.
It’ll soon become much easier to get a concealed weapon permit.
Starting Jan. 1, residents, for an extra $22 or $12 for a renewal (in addition to the $112 fee for a new application), will be able to fill out their concealed weapon application at the tax collector’s office in Bunnell, have their fingerprints and picture taken there and the application scanned and transmitted from the office to the Department of Agriculture in Tallahassee, fast-tracking the process. “We don’t actually approve it, we’d just be taking the application and transmitting it electronically to them,” Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston said.
The process is expected to take one hour or less, depending on applicants’ dexterity with a computer. Four to six of Johnston’s 30 staffers will be trained (in Tallahassee) to provide the service. None of the information submitted to the tax office or to the agriculture department in Tallahassee is subject to public record disclosure.
Until now, applicants for concealed weapon permits have had to apply in person at one of eight regional offices around the state, the closest ones to Flagler being in Jacksonville or Orlando, or apply by mail, though they could pick up the application at the local sheriff’s office and be finger-printed there for $5. The applicant would then be responsible for sending in the fingerprinting card to Tallahassee with the application. That $5 is separate from the $42 the department of agriculture levies for processing the fingerprints and conduct a background check.
“There’s nothing that we’re involved in in the process other than if a citizen asks for a concealed weapon permit packet we provide it to them,” the Flagler Sheriff’s Office’s Jim Troiano said. “As far as the tax collector offering them, I think that’s a great idea. The more service the better.”
Applicants would still have to be background-checked and wait three days before legally owning a weapon. Florida, however, makes it very easy for residents 21 or older to carry a concealed weapon. Restrictions are few. Felons may not be licensed. Restrictions also apply to individuals who are currently under a domestic violence injunction, who have been declared incapacitated under the law or who have been committee to a mental institution. Alcoholics and drug addict s are theoretically barred from eligibility, but applicants self-report, so that provision’s teeth are questionable. Since 1987, the state has received 2.88 million applications for concealed weapon permits. It has approved 98.2 percent of them. Two-thirds of denials are the result of incomplete applications.
The Florida Legislature last year passed the bill enabling tax collectors to take applications (by a 94-22 margin in the House and a unanimous vote in the Senate). Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law in June 2014.
“The Department of Agriculture started with several tax collectors and they’re adding more as they’re able to,” Johnston said. “They’re doing four, five at a time. We’re not one of those yet.”
Adam Putnam, the agriculture commissioner, was at the tax collector’s office in St. Augustine today announcing the broad roll-out of the plan. His staffers were at Johnston’s office recently, evaluating the Bunnell office for space and equipment before sending it down.
The service will be available only at the Government Services Building, not at Johnston’s satellite office on Old Kings Road in Palm Coast.
“Anything that helps the residents, I’m all for, so whether I like it or not, the simple fact is that if it helps the residents, it’s a good thing,” Johnston said. Her $2 million budget will not be affected by the additional service: “The department of agriculture will furnish all of the equipment, so it really won’t cost our office or the taxpayer anything.” But her staff will have to assume the new responsibilities. Four to six employees from among her total of 30 will go to Tallahassee for a day’s training. The $22 application fee, all of which will go into the tax collector’s coffers, is expected to generate extra revenue for the office.
The spread of fast-tracking capabilities at tax collectors’ offices is in response to the increasing demand for concealed weapon permits over the past 14 years. In 2000, there were 28,618 applications for initial licensure and 73,821 applications for licensure renewal the entire year. These days a single month can tally that number: in 2013, the Department received 204,288 new license applications and 60,293 applications for license renewal.
The Legislature appropriated an annual $736,608 extra to the Department of Agriculture, paying for the addition of 11 state employees, to facilitate the fast-tracking. The Department also planned to provide computers, scanners, printers, and one camera for each participating tax collector’s office at a cost of $2,900, plus an electronic finger-print scanner for $17,000. The department also assumes the $1,620 maintenance cost of each scanner, adding well over $1 million to the fast-tracking infrastructure across the state. There were no objections from small-government advocates.
“If the convenience of applying at tax collectors’ offices increases the number of applications, the private companies may experience an increase in revenue as a result of more individuals taking the classes,” a legislative analysis of the bill spreading the system to tax collectors noted in 2014.
While the tax collector’s office will accept applications for concealed weapons, it is still illegal to walk into the Government Services Building in Bunnell with a firearm, except for law enforcement and security personnel.