Governor candidate Nikki Fried says, 'I kicked out the NRA.' What does that really mean?

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On the campaign trail, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried touts what she says is a track record showing her to be a leading combatant against the National Rifle Association.

Fried, one of two competitors for the Democratic nomination in the gubernatorial primary Aug. 23, is making the case to voters that she is the best candidate to address an issue Florida Democrats solidly support by delivering action on gun safety measures if elected.

"After I won in 2018, I kicked the NRA out of Florida's gun licensing office," Fried has said.

Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried speaks to Jenny Big Crow, left, and Marvelous Washington during a campaign stop as she runs for  governor in West Palm Beach, Florida on April 12, 2022.
Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried speaks to Jenny Big Crow, left, and Marvelous Washington during a campaign stop as she runs for governor in West Palm Beach, Florida on April 12, 2022.

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The commissioner also highlights that she suspended weapon permits held by 35 Florida permit holders who participated in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

"Painful though it may be, we must continue to hold those who stormed the Capitol accountable," Fried said in a statement. "Justice must prevail. Nothing less than our fragile democracy is at stake."

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The effort to promote her work in the department on gun control has proved timely as the issue has vaulted back into the headlines in recent days.

The debate was renewed in the wake of a series of horrific mass shootings across the United States, including at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 that left 19 children dead. The galvanized the March for Our Lives movement, which itself arose from a mass shooting on Valentine's Day 2018 that killed 14 students and three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

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In response, a 30-year stalemate on Capitol Hill was broken in June with bipartisan legislation. But that win was tempered by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling June 23 that struck down New York state's century-old concealed-gun carry law.

In Florida, the man Fried aspires to defeat in November, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, along with Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee, appear ready to push "constitutional carry" legislation to make it legal for citizens who can legally possess a firearm to carry a handgun in public.

If approved, weapons permits would no longer be needed. Without that legal requirement, the firearm-licensing division of Fried's department would be obsolete.

"We should be passing laws to prevent gun violence and working to fix our state’s affordable housing crisis, not creating chaos to score political points," Fried said.

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The licensing of firearms in the state is no small matter, advocates argue.

"Permitting is essential to ensuring public safety, since it is the most effective way to prevent criminals from obtaining firearms," said Gail Schwartz, chair of Miami-based Ban Assault Weapons Now.

Fried, the only Democrat holding statewide office, said the weapons-regulating office was a mess when she became commissioner in early 2019. Her predecessor, Adam Putnam, had come under fire for his department's reported failure to conduct background checks on tens of thousands of people who applied for concealed-weapons permits between 2016 and 2017.

Putnam, a self-described "proud NRA sellout," lost the 2018 gubernatorial primary in a landslide to DeSantis. Fried won the race to succeed him by edging out  Republican Matt Caldwell by less than 1 percent of the vote.

Nonetheless, according to an auditor general report issued in November 2021, Fried's department still had deficiencies within the Division of Licensing when it came to thoroughly reviewing gun-license applications.

Among the concerns listed in the report, was that Agriculture Department managers did not document follow-up discussions with employees who did not properly view weapon permit applications.  Employees either only saw the first page of the application, didn’t review the application at all or didn’t review the person's criminal history.

The Auditor General report’s investigator reviewed 30 such reports out of the 147 produced between July 2019 to January 2020. Seven reports were categorized as employee errors without documentation of follow-up discussions or actions, and six reports were not clearly denoted as employee errors or non-errors.

Fried responded to the auditor general's conclusions by saying that department management followed up with employees verbally, and that she ordered those discussions to be documented over email.

But there were other holes in the department's weapons-licensing protocols, the report said.

State law requires that weapon permits be issued only if applicants meet specific requirements: being at least 21 years old; demonstrating competency with firearms; and having no disqualifying felony convictions, or convictions for a misdemeanor crime of domestic abuse, within three years.

The report revealed that the department did not conduct reviews of applications to make sure applicants met those criteria in a timely manner.

Quality assurance review reports, which ensure that only qualified applicants were issued permits, are due within 30 days of being processed. The department responded within time spans of 46 days to 210 days between July 2019 and January 2020, the report said. In addition, the department was required to notify applicants within 30 days of errors or omitted information in their applications, but the department also had delays in issuing those notices.

The auditor general’s investigation also found that the department failed to conduct periodic Level 2 background screenings — defined by state law to include fingerprinting for state and national criminal history checks — of employees in upper-level positions after they were hired.

Fried cited problems with unprecedented application volumes for causing delays in quality assurance reports and timely omission letters, and has requested additional positions for the department and authorized overtime. As for background screenings, she said the department was researching ways to "resolve this issue at a reasonable cost to the department."

Gun lobbyist Marion Hammer, the NRA and Nikki Fried

The gun lobby has been entrenched in Florida's policy arena for decades. Gun safety advocates have long suspected the Agriculture Department sided with the NRA's agenda because previous commissioners were affiliated with the the powerful gun rights organization.

Long-time Florida NRA lobbyist and leader Marion Hammer is said to have led lobbying efforts to give the Agriculture Department the power to issue weapon permits in the first place.

"There was a considerable amount of influence that the NRA had inside the department," Fried said. "Hopefully whoever comes in after me would take the same precautions."

In terms of policy, however, Fried doesn't envision any drastic moves, she said. To an extent, her hands are tied. Many of the department's policies are rooted in state law, and it's doubtful legislative Republicans would side with reforms Fried proposes.

Fried doesn't support the idea of removing the Division of Licensing from the department. And although Florida is the only state that gives its Agriculture Department the power to issue weapon permits, Fried supports keeping it that way.

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In 2018, Fried said she sent Hammer a letter telling her that a Fried administration "will not be run by unelected special interests." Hammer said she never received a letter and flagged Fried as an "anti-gun extremist who will eliminate our freedoms."

Since Fried assumed office, the two have been trading back-and-forth fire regarding gun regulation laws.

In 2019, Fried filed a brief with the First District Court of Appeal challenging a 2011 gun law that imposed strict penalties on local officials who approved gun-regulation measures. A circuit court judge ruled this measure unconstitutional, and it is pending a decision from the Florida Supreme Court.

Upon Hammer's announcement of her retirement, Fried condemned Hammer and took a jab at her leading rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, ex-Gov. and current U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist.

"NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer is retiring," Fried tweeted. "Charlie Crist put her in the Florida Hall of Fame. I kicked her and the NRA out of our weapons office."

During Crist's stint as governor in 2010, he held a different stance on gun regulation.

"I want to thank you for doing so much to protect the Second Amendment," Crist told Hammer in 2010 during the bill-signing ceremony for legislation pushed by Hammer that blocked the Legislature from touching the concealed weapons trust fund.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist attend a debate at The Box Gallery in West Palm Beach. The event united the LGBTQ communities of Broward and Palm Beach Counties for the gubernatorial forum during Pride Month on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 in West Palm Beach.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist attend a debate at The Box Gallery in West Palm Beach. The event united the LGBTQ communities of Broward and Palm Beach Counties for the gubernatorial forum during Pride Month on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 in West Palm Beach.

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Fried and Crist currently hold similar platforms to push for heavier regulation, but Fried has pressed in her campaign that she's held this platform consistently.

"Charlie is more focused on his political career than on the entire state," Fried said.

In 2012, Crist called for a ban on assault rifles.

Asked for an explanation of Crist's support for the Second Amendment as well as an assault weapons ban, Crist campaign spokeswoman Samantha Ramirez said Crist's record is clear on gun reform and that he "stood alongside gun reform activists to release a plan to truly tackle the gun violence epidemic facing our state.

"And to this day, he’s the only candidate with a plan to take comprehensive action once elected," Ramirez said.

Schwartz, of Ban Assault Weapons Now, says she is backing Crist. The aunt of Alex Schachter, one of the students killed in the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Schwartz says she is concerned Fried did not commit to banning assault weapons after Ban Assault Weapons Now sent out a pledge to gubernatorial candidates asking them to support it.

It took a press release voicing these concerns for Fried to sign this pledge, Schwartz said.

Fried, on the other hand, has received recognition from Moms Demand Action as a "gun sense" candidate, and has been endorsed by Fred Guttenberg, a prominent advocate for gun restrictions following the death of his 14-year-old daughter, Jaime Guttenberg, in the Stoneman Douglas shooting.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Florida governor's race: Democratic candidate campaigns on gun safety