Pistol Packin' Politicos

It's a fair bet that your favorite Dade big shot is a sure shot, too

Since the state's concealed-weapons law was enacted in late 1987, tens of thousands of people have paid the requisite $160 fee, answered the dozen simple questions on the one-page application, and fingerprinted themselves for posterity. Only if a person has been convicted of a violent felony or misdemeanor, been judged to be mentally incompetent, or been convicted of two or more drunk-driving offenses will the state refuse to issue a permit.

In the past five years, only 837 people have applied for a permit in this state and had their application refused.

In Florida, which is one of 34 states that has enacted statewide concealed-weapons legislation, a person doesn't need a permit to buy a gun. There is a three-day waiting period for purchase, but anyone can possess a gun in his or her home or place of business -- even in a car, as long as the weapon is out of easy reach -- without a special permit. Only those who actually want to carry a gun with them need to have a permit. (Incidentally, it's illegal to carry an "unconcealed" weapon -- say, a six-shooter strapped to your side -- unless you're a police or jail officer, or an on-duty guard or investigator. The only other exemptions apply to hunters, people practicing their marksmanship at gun ranges, and collectors at conventions and exhibitions.)

The pistol-politician nexus is also evident in the power of the gun lobby, typified by the National Rifle Association. Although a count isn't yet available for the new U.S. Legislature, as of last year at least 125 U.S. representatives and senators were card-carrying members of the NRA, according to David Gibbons, director of federal affairs for the NRA in Washington, D.C.

"Of course George Bush is a member of the NRA and Ronald Reagan is a member of the NRA, and lots of people like that," gushes Gibbons. Senators and congressmen serve on the NRA's national board of directors. The group's political action committee donates tens of thousands of dollars to politicians across the nation, and its lobbyists are considered to be among the most powerful to patrol the halls of Congress. Repeatedly, those lobbyists have fought for the right of the American hunter to obtain semiautomatic assault rifles and armor-piercing bullets.

"Most politicians feel very strongly about the Constitution," Gibbons says. "And the majority of them believe that the Second Amendment is exactly what it says concerning the right to bear arms."

Obviously, however, not every politician owns a gun. Given her commitment to law and order, you might expect that U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's name would have a permit attached to it. Not so, the computer inquiry revealed. Nor is her husband, war-weary former U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, registered with the Division of Licensing. (Because of his media prominence, Lehtinen's name was included in the computer search, even though he isn't technically a politician.) Too bad, because it's easy to picture the two of them striding through the darkened streets of Dade, keeping the populus free from lawlessness, or standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the firing range, blasting holes in life-size cardboard cutouts of Ted Kennedy and Michael Dukakis. Good shot, dear!

A couple of state legislators -- Democratic Sen. Ron Silver (38th Dist.) and Republican Rep. Luis Rojas (102nd Dist.) initially showed up on the state's computer printout of pistol packers, but both turned out to be cases of mistaken identity. "There are several Luis Rojases," Congressman Rojas explains. "One of them was arrested, and I've always had problems [with people] thinking I was him. I think handguns are dangerous. I think we have too many of them. I'm not anti-gun, but I wish we didn't have them."

Says Silver: "I've never applied for a concealed-weapon permit. I don't even know how to use a gun. Although, as the problems in society escalate, you do think about it a little bit. But right now I still don't feel the need to carry one."

And of course there are also those who are vehemently opposed to the idea of carrying a gun. "I have no desire to get a concealed-weapon permit," says Don Goetz, mayor of Virginia Gardens. "Particularly since I'm a father of three. I know what can happen when parents own guns. I also see what this gun mania is doing to this country."

Goetz, a teacher at Miami Central High School in Liberty City, has had a close-up view of the nation's gun fancy. Once, he says, one of his students let him know he was carrying a gun, but he dealt with the situation by talking to the student; in such a situation, if he'd had a gun himself, it only would have made matters worse. "You don't want to settle arguments with guns. We've glorified guns," Goetz says. "Having a gun is part of the American mystique. Our generation has given the wrong message concerning guns."

Echoes Joe Carollo, who narrowly escaped a duel with Jorge "Big M" Mas Canosa: "People who have big egos often don't have the self-control to understand how dangerous a gun is. And there are certainly some people who hold elected office who fit that stereotype. But you don't have to be a politician to have a big ego."

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