Guns-on-campus proposal heads to Florida House floor
A controversial plan, backed by the National Rifle Association, that would allow guns on college and university campuses statewide is ready for Florida's 120 House members to vote on when they begin their 2016 session in January.
The proposal (House Bill 4001) from Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, made swift progress through three House committees this fall and cleared its final hurdle on Thursday, despite passionate objections from the higher education community and campus law enforcement.
The House Judiciary Committee easily approved the bill by 13-5 vote. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee -- a co-sponsor of the bill -- joined Republicans in supporting it. The panel's five other Democrats were opposed.
"Time and time again, we’ve seen shootings in gun-free zones, and I don’t believe that should be policy in the state of Florida," Steube said of his bill.
But university and college presidents and administrators, campus police chiefs, faculty and other education groups vehemently oppose allowing guns on campus. They said again Thursday that guns don't have any place in an environment that should be dedicated to learning, and that allowing campus-carry could make emergency situations even more chaotic.
The Senate companion bill (SB 68) -- sponsored by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker -- also has gained favor this fall in two committees: criminal justice and higher education. It awaits a third and final hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it stalled last year.
Gun-rights advocates -- led most vocally by the NRA, Florida Carry and students supporting conceal-carry -- argue the proposed law honors their Second Amendment rights, would "empower victims," and would give students, faculty and staff a better chance at defending themselves in extreme situations, such as during an active shooter on campus or a sexual assault attack.
Education advocates say the Legislature shouldn't "outsource" campus security to untrained citizens. The bill would allow more than 1.4 million Floridians with a concealed-weapons permit to carry on campus, and critics say training requirements to receive those permits are minimal.
Police forces at Florida's 12 universities report being understaffed, as-is. Should the bill become law, Florida's 28 colleges have said they'd have to spend more than $74 million to beef up their campus security because only five campuses have police or armed security.
Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, initially dismissed that figure as "inflammatory" because it isn't included in the legislative staff analysis. After Michael Brawer, CEO of the Association of Florida Colleges, elaborated on it -- describing it as an "'unfunded mandate" -- Hudson asked: "If campus security is such a concern, why haven’t you done anything about it thus far?"
“It has boiled down to the inability of our college appropriations to support the costs it would take,” Brawer said.
Challenging Hudson’s criticism of the colleges’ priorities, Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, said the Legislature should shoulder some of the responsibility -- which prompted Hudson to shake his head.
“We’ve starved our educational system,” Kerner said. “I don’t think it’s fair to sit here and blame (the colleges) for not having the most robust security system they can when we’re constantly under-funding them.”
The campus-carry bill was not assigned to budget committees for vetting on the financial impact to taxpayers. The legislative analysis lists only "indeterminate" costs.
Thursday's vote in the House Judiciary Committee gave the NRA two out of three potential victories this week, which is the second to last committee week before the 2016 session.
A bill allowing concealed-weapons permit-holders to openly carry guns narrowly cleared a House budget subcommittee on Thursday by a 7-6 vote, advancing to its third and final committee hearing in the House. If that bill and the campus-carry bill both become law, concealed-carry permit-holders could openly carry on college and university campuses.