TAMPA — Students can't carry guns on campus at the University of South Florida. But after a policy change Monday, they are allowed to keep them in their cars.
USF announced the change in response to a December ruling by Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal declaring that universities could not prevent students from storing firearms in their cars.
It all stems from a 2011 case in which University of North Florida student Alexandria Lainez and gun rights group Florida Carry Inc. sued UNF based on its gun policy.
Lainez, a single mother, said she normally carried her gun during her commute through Jacksonville's rough neighborhoods to protect herself and her son. She said the policies at UNF prevented her from carrying the gun on the ride to school because she wasn't allowed to store it in her car during class.
Florida Carry cited the state's weapons and firearms statutes, which say, in part: "No public or private employer may prohibit any customer, employee, or invitee from possessing any legally owned firearm when such firearm is lawfully possessed and locked inside or locked to a private motor vehicle in a parking lot and when the customer, employee, or invitee is lawfully in such area."
In December, the court of appeal sided with Lainez in a 75-page ruling.
After the ruling, Florida Carry threatened to sue any Florida university that didn't change its policy.
USF officials placed the policy under review before formally updating it to comply with the law on Jan. 3, according to a university spokesman.
The policy, available on USF's website, states that individuals are prohibited from carrying firearms on USF property, except as provided by Florida law. It doesn't specifically mention that people can keep guns in cars.
Florida Carry officials are pleased with the steps taken at USF, the organization's lead counsel, Eric Friday, said. However, they would like to see USF explicitly state that people can keep guns in their cars.
"They have made what appears to be a good faith attempt to resolve the issue," Friday said. "And while we don't believe that it's sufficient, we're not about to sue someone and play any kind of games. We would much rather resolve these cases through discussions rather than litigation."
Friday said Florida Carry had reached out to USF officials and hoped to hear back.
Students don't have to let anyone on campus know if they plan to keep guns in their cars on campus, but they should use common sense, said USF police spokesman Lt. Chris Daniels.
"It's just another item in the car that's subject to theft," he said. "So I would make sure it's out of view just like anything else."
Florida law prohibits guns on state campuses, and universities are exempt from concealed weapons permits, Daniels said.
The policy change regarding guns in cars applies to all campuses under the USF umbrella, including USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee. It also applies to all students, faculty, staff, visitors, contractors and guests.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3394.