TAMPA, Florida — The thousands of protesters expected at the Democratic and Republican national conventions can come armed with a lot more than signs and slogans: State law in Florida and North Carolina allows concealed weapons, including guns.
In Tampa, where the Republicans will hold their festivities this fall, officials are starting to worry about people toting guns in such a politically charged environment. The City Council voted Thursday to ask Republican Gov. Rick Scott to help them temporarily ban concealed weapons. Charlotte officials have yet to publically voice concern, but with both cities trying to balance public safety with First and Second Amendment rights, it's likely the host city for the Democratic convention will also have to address the issue.
The Tampa City Council wants Scott to issue an executive order, preventing people with concealed weapons permits from carrying guns.
"We believe it is necessary and prudent to take this reasonable step to prevent a potential tragedy," council member Lisa Montelione said in a draft letter to Scott.
Tampa city leaders have already proposed a host of banned items (lumber, hatchets, gas masks, chains and "super soaker" water cannons) – but they are prevented from outlawing concealed guns.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the state law has made the city "look silly," particularly because officials can ban water guns but not real ones.
"We're kind of constrained by the state law," he said.
The issue is a more complicated in Charlotte. The city in January adopted an ordinance allowing it to set up "extraordinary event zones" – designated areas where people won't be allowed to carry backpacks and other items.
The city wanted to ban guns in those zones. State law, though, allows people to carry concealed weapons – unless they're at a parade or protest.
"The zone is going to be far bigger than a demonstration area. So if I have a demonstration that marches us down main street, but the extraordinary event zone covers all of downtown, what about the area outside the demonstration? That's the piece that been hitting us here," said Mark Newbold, an attorney with the Charlotte police department.
Tens of thousands of delegates, journalists and political junkies will stream into the mid-sized cities for the multi-day conventions. Republicans hold their event at the Tampa Bay Times Arena Aug. 27-30. The Democrats' party is a week later at the Time Warner Cable Arena. Inside the arenas, the Secret Service has banned civilians from carrying guns.
Both cities have hosted large gatherings before – Tampa has held four Super Bowls and Charlotte has entertained the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament and the National Rifle Association convention – but neither has really experienced an event such as this.
In the past 50 years, political conventions have become a magnet for protesters, and they have sometimes turned ugly.
In 1968, demonstrators tried to disrupt the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Scenes of police clashing with protesters on the streets played on TV screens in living rooms across America. Four years later, anti-war demonstrators disrupted the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach.
More recently, thousands of protesters descended on St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2008, when the city hosted the Republican National Convention. Some demonstrators smashed cars, punctured tires and threw bottles in a confrontation with pepper-spray-wielding police. Hundreds of people were arrested over a few days.
"Everything we are doing is based on something that happened at another convention or another national security event," Tampa City Attorney Jim Shimberg said.
The federal government has given $50 million each to Charlotte and Tampa to help them pay for new security-related equipment, training and officer salaries.
Tampa is proposing a "Clean Zone" protest area with portable toilets, water, a stage and a microphone for protesters. Outside that area, people will be allowed to march down an official parade route as long as they have a permit.
The exact location of the protest zones and security perimeter will be decided by the city commission in the coming weeks.
Joyce Hamilton Henry, the director of the mid-Florida office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said her organization is concerned about protests that will be limited to 60 minutes, and a ban on masks.
"We feel it's totally unrealistic, especially if groups are coming in with large numbers," Hamilton Henry said.
The Tampa Police Department is expected to rotate most of its 1,000-officer force into convention security during the event, which could draw up to 45,000 people. An additional 3,000 officers from other agencies around the state will help.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department plans to add 2,400 to 3,400 officers from outside departments to its force of more than 1,750.
For the convention there, a coalition of groups has formed because they said they are angry the city has refused to share information about where they can gather.
The Coalition to Protest at the DNC has threatened to gather without permits, and promised a massive demonstration Sept. 2 in what they call the Wall Street of the South. The groups promised the demonstrations will be peaceful.
Charlotte, a city of 760,000 people, is home to Bank of America Corp., one of the nation's largest banks.
"This is something we have to do. They can't stop our right to protest," said Ben Carroll, a coalition spokesman.
Members of the coalition said they're still angry about how police in February disbanded an Occupy Charlotte tent city on the lawn outside the old City Hall. Protesters had been camped there since October.
The move came one week after Charlotte adopted the extraordinary event ordinance, which gave police more power to stop and search people when the convention comes to town
The city said it has the right to restrict demonstrations, but wants to be fair to protesters. So the city has added a "speakers' platform," a location with microphones and amplification equipment.
Mitch Weiss contributed from Charlotte, N.C.
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