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DeSantis wanted to ban guns at event, but not to be blamed, emails show

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks at a party in Tampa on Nov. 8, celebrating his reelection. DeSantis's campaign wanted to ban guns at the event, according to a city official in emails reviewed by The Washington Post. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
11 min

As Gov. Ron DeSantis prepared for an election night party in downtown Tampa last year, city officials received a surprising — and politically sensitive — request.

The Republican governor’s campaign wanted weapons banned from his victory celebration at the city-run Tampa Convention Center, a city official said in emails obtained by The Washington Post. And the campaign suggested that the city take responsibility for the firearms ban, the official said — not the governor, who has been a vocal supporter of gun rights.

Black gun owners are one of the fastest growing groups of firearm owners. A 2022 Supreme Court ruling could be helping the rise. (Video: Jackson Barton/The Washington Post)

“DeSantis/his campaign will not tell their attendees they are not permitted to carry because of the political optics,” Chase Finch, the convention center’s safety and security manager, said in an Oct. 28 email to other city officials about the request, which was conveyed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), a state police agency led by a DeSantis appointee.

Finch further explained that because of “Republicans largely being in support of 2A,” referring to the Second Amendment, “Basically it sounds like they want us to say it’s our policy to disallow firearms within the event space if anyone asks.”

In a statement sent after this story published, FDLE said the agency determines on its own whether to prohibit weapons at events. “FDLE did not request the venue restrict weapons at the direction of the Governor or campaign. Security decisions are made by FDLE,” agency spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said.

Tampa Convention Center officials ultimately rejected the request to ban weapons. State law allows concealed firearms to be brought inside the public facility unless the renter insists on a gun-free event. On election night, the campaign did require guests to pass through metal detectors, Finch said.

The previously unreported request to Tampa officials illuminates a touchy issue for DeSantis as he weighs a potential bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Even as DeSantis has earned the highest rating from the National Rifle Association’s political arm, gun owners are balking at his recent appearances at events where firearms were prohibited, according to interviews and online posts.

Tim Marden, now the chairman of Florida’s Alachua County GOP, said he skipped a fundraiser featuring DeSantis in October after he was told the governor’s team insisted on metal detectors. A gun rights protester was arrested outside the event.

“In my thinking, it was a little hypocritical to have this measure in place for law-abiding citizens at a time when a lot of folks in the gun community will condemn a Democratic politician for having a security force,” Marden said.

In response to questions from The Post about gun bans at DeSantis events, the governor’s deputy press secretary, Jeremy Redfern, said in an email, “We do not comment on speculation and hearsay. The Governor is strongly in support of individuals’ constitutional right to bear arms.”

Lindsey Curnutte, a spokeswoman for the governor’s political team, said: “We follow the guidance of the FDLE and local law enforcement to keep the governor and his family safe during events.”

FDLE, which reports to the governor and three other statewide elected officials, values “the rights of our citizens to legally bear arms,” Plessinger said, and makes decisions based on “security threats.” She added in an email: “FDLE encourages private and public venues to limit weapons when hosting the Governor and First Family at large events. Doing so enhances the ability of law enforcement officers and FDLE Protective Operations agents to work proficiently and quickly in the event of an emergency.”

Plessinger noted that “security decisions are made solely by FDLE without consultation or input from any other agency or entity.”

DeSantis’s stance on gun rights is expected to draw attention in the coming weeks as the legislature debates a closely watched bill to legalize carrying concealed weapons without permits. The measure cleared its first committee this week but drew blowback from gun activists, who argue it does not go far enough. Redfern said the governor “has repeatedly stated publicly that he hopes to sign Constitutional Carry legislation this year.”

As DeSantis considers a 2024 presidential bid, potential GOP opponents who have put gun rights at the center of their agendas, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, could seek to capitalize on the issue, said Luis Valdes, Florida state director of Gun Owners of America. Former president Donald Trump, who is running for another term, was credited by the NRA’s political arm in 2020 with doing “more than any president to protect the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”

“DeSantis continually pays lip service to the Second Amendment as he positions himself for a nationwide run, and yet what I am seeing as a constituent of his and as a Floridian is that his events are gun-free zones,” Valdes said. “His primary rivals will clean his clock on guns.”

The DeSantis campaign’s sensitivity to the issue was described in the correspondence between FDLE and Tampa officials in the days before the Nov. 8 election. The city officials who received the campaign’s request quickly agreed that they had no flexibility on the issue; Florida law gives the legislature the power to regulate firearms and generally prohibits local governments from doing so. Under a 1987 law, the state has granted more than 2.6 million licenses to carry concealed weapons in many public places.

“I’m certainly not signing this without any sort of guidance,” Finch wrote to city officials.

Less than half an hour later, he received an emailed response from Nicole Travis, the city’s administrator of development and economic opportunity: “We are not saying anything about concealed carry. That is the responsibility of the renter. We follow State Statute that permits concealed carry.”

In Finch’s response to FDLE officials, he said banning concealed weapons at the Tampa Convention Center could put the city in a “legal quagmire.” He added: “I understand the campaign does not wish to ‘restrict’ 2A for their event because of the optics, but if any guests asks, we will not say it’s TCC’s policy to disallow legal carry.”

Diana Hunter, FDLE special agent supervisor, did not object to Finch’s assertion about the campaign’s position and thanked him for explaining the city’s policy in her response.

Days before the FDLE made its request of the Tampa Convention Center, gun advocates raised concerns about a weapons ban at the Alachua County Republican Party’s annual fundraiser, where DeSantis was scheduled to be the keynote speaker.

In the days leading up to the Oct. 20 event at a public building owned by the city of Alachua, a town near Gainesville, Fla., gun rights advocates warned in online posts that ticket holders would have to pass through metal detectors.

Jared Yanis, host of the Guns & Gadgets YouTube channel, which has over 600,000 subscribers, posted a 13-minute video about the no-guns policy at the event, saying: “Ron DeSantis is saying Florida is a Second Amendment state — except if you want to hear me talk, you have to give up your Second Amendment.” Lee Williams of the Second Amendment Foundation, a national group based in Washington state, wrote that he was told by Alachua GOP Treasurer Ann Stone that the governor would not attend unless guns were banned.

Stone could not be reached for comment. The governor’s representatives did not respond to questions about the Alachua event.

After receiving an email alert about the no-weapons policy from a gun rights group called Florida Carry, Chris Rose decided to protest outside the Alachua fundraiser. Carrying a neon yellow “I WILL NOT BE DISARMED BY DESANTIS” sign, he said he stood on the sidewalk about 30 yards from the entrance to the fundraiser. He was asked to leave by a private security guard for the event, according to his arrest report. When he refused, the security guard asked the police to “remove” him, the report says.

Rose was arrested for trespassing, but the charge was dropped last month, records show. “I can’t consider DeSantis a defender of the fundamental human right to self-defense,” he said. “It’s just talk.”

Valdes of Gun Owners of America, who also warned supporters about the no-weapons policy before the event, said he was shocked to see Rose get arrested as he handed out literature opposing gun-free zones. “It’s a very delicate balancing act because there are credible threats against public officials, but we also have to respect the public’s civil rights” to carry guns, he said.

Valdes had attended a DeSantis campaign event one month earlier, in September, where guns also were prohibited. “All attendees must undergo security screening prior to entering the event,” read a notice from the governor’s campaign about the event in Dover, Fla., where DeSantis received an endorsement from the Florida Farm Bureau Federation’s political action committee.

Representatives of the farm bureau and the site that hosted the event said they were not in charge of security.

“I wasn’t happy about it, but I secured my firearm in my vehicle,” Valdes said. “It was a public event in a field and in no way would a bad guy with ill intentions have been stopped.”

Concealed weapons were also forbidden at Unite & Win rallies in August where DeSantis stumped alongside Republican candidates in Arizona, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Business Insider reported. The events were organized by Turning Point Action, a conservative advocacy group. Turning Point Action spokesman Andrew Kolvet said it is not the organization’s policy to ban firearms at its events, though some venues prohibit weapons. “Just like we’ve done in the past with the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies, we coordinated with Florida Department of Law Enforcement and followed FDLE’s direction,” he said.

Valdes and other gun rights advocates say they are reluctant to criticize DeSantis because of his pro-gun rights record as governor and a former U.S. House member.

When DeSantis was serving in Congress in 2018, Florida’s GOP-controlled government passed a gun-control law following the massacre of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla. The legislation raised the minimum age for buying firearms from 18 to 21. As a candidate for governor that spring, DeSantis said he was “disappointed that the Florida Legislature is rushing to restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens.” He added, “Better to focus on denying firearms to dangerous individuals, which avoids infringing on constitutional rights and is also more likely to be effective.”

In 2021, DeSantis signed a bill that allows concealed weapon permit holders to carry their guns into churches or other religious institutions even if they share property with schools.

After 10 people were gunned down at a Buffalo grocery store in May, DeSantis said of mass shooters, “They are not dumb, because they pick their targets and they know — and the Buffalo guy said he wanted to go where he knew there wouldn’t be blowback from people being armed, and so he tried to find a gun-free zone.” The governor added, “What you do is, you focus on the criminal. You focus on the lunatic. You don’t kneecap the rights of law-abiding citizens.”

The next month, DeSantis praised a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down a New York law requiring people who want to carry handguns to show they have a special need to defend themselves. “What you don’t want is to have a government bureaucrat stymie your ability to exercise your constitutional rights,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis also has pledged to sign a permitless concealed carry law, though he has not directly endorsed a bill in the Florida legislature that drew criticism at its first committee hearing this week, with gun-control advocates saying it will lead to violence and pro-gun activists arguing that it should allow them to openly carry weapons. Representatives of the governor did not respond to questions from The Post about whether he would support an “open carry” provision in the bill.

“Constitutional carry — I’ve been in favor of the whole time,” DeSantis said in August. “And so we think we will be able to do that, but that really requires the legislature to get it to my desk. I’m not the issue. I will sign it. That will be an easy thing to do.”