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Sanford police chief flips on gun ban for neighborhood watch

The Sanford Police Chief will not be banning volunteers from using guns while participating in neighborhood watch, after saying he would last week.
Police Chief Cecil Smith
Police Chief Cecil Smith speaks with residents of the Goldsboro community of Sanford, Fla., June 19, 2013.

The police chief in the town where George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin has reneged on a plan to ban volunteers from carrying guns while participating in the neighborhood watch program.

Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith was expected to announce the ban on guns at a community meeting Tuesday night, but said instead that the police department will merely urge volunteers to remain unarmed, rather than requiring it. 

"We're recommending that no one is armed," Smith said Tuesday, according to the Orlando Sentinel. "If you choose to have a firearm, that's your right.

But last week, Sanford Police Department Spokeswoman Shannon Cordingly told NBC News that volunteers would be banned from carrying firearms while participating in the neighborhood watch program. 

Guns rights groups were critical of that announcement.

"If they're licensed to carry, they're licensed to carry, and that should not be restricted," Carrie Lightfoot, founder of the Well Armed Woman, said of the rule according to a report from NBC's WESH, which also noted that at least one local gun rights advocate was pleased to learn the ban was off the table. 

But Sean Caranna, executive director of Florida Carry, told the Orlando Sentinel it was "irresponsible" for Smith to even recommend volunteers don't carry guns. 

"What you are doing is asking people to be out in their community, be visible and take note of what's going on," Caranna said. "They can be more of a target for criminal aggression. We certainly don't want the only person to be armed in a confrontation to be a criminal."

Smith told reporters Monday that while he legally had the power to institute the ban, he decided against it. 

"We want people to feel as though they are part of a movement," he said. "And it's smarter for us to say, listen, if you're going to be a part of it, you need to abide by the rules. And it's a voluntary organization and if you choose not to be a part of it, you don't have to be a part of it."

Depsite the lack of gun ban, Smith introduced a series of other reforms to the neighborhood watch program Tuesday, including additional guidance and training for volunteers, along with a new background check requirements. Volunteers must also sign a waiver absolving the city of any responsibility for their actions while on watch. Under the new program, block captains in the program will work directly with police officer, a switch from the old version of the program where volunteers worked primarily with civilian liaisons. 

The retooled program comes as part of a department wide reorganization led by Smith, who took over after former Police Chief Bill Lee, who oversaw the Zimmerman investigation, was fired. 

"Our goal is to teach them to be great observers and fantastic witnesses," Smith said, according to the Orlando Sentinel, reiterating that the program is to provide police with information about suspicious activity, not for volunteers to patrol and carry guns. 

"If you see something, hear something, say something, call us and allow us to do the job we are being paid for," he added. 

Prosecutors argued in court this summer that Zimmerman was guilty of second-degree murder because he unjustifiably pursued Martin and eventually shot him after a police dispatcher told him "we don't need you to" follow him. The defense argued Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defense after the teen attacked him. The jury sided with the defense, finding Zimmerman not guilty.