TALLAHASSEE — Two Florida Senate committees advanced controversial proposals Tuesday that would make it easier for the 1.4 million Floridians with concealed-weapons permits — including more than 160,000 in the Tampa Bay area — to carry guns openly in public and on college campuses and universities.
The bills, supported by gun-rights advocates, relax Florida's restrictions on where and how gun owners can carry their firearms.
Both bills still have to be vetted by two other committees each before they could even reach the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote. Companion bills are also being considered in the House and face similar hurdles.
Legislation allowing concealed guns on Florida's colleges and university campuses passed the Senate Higher Education Committee by a 5-3 vote along party lines with the panel's three Democrats opposed. Senate Bill 68 is sponsored by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker.
Supporters of the "campus-carry" bill argued that it would allow students, professors and staff members to defend themselves against active shooters or sexual assault attacks.
"You certainly have my support to defend yourself the way you see fit," Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, told a woman who testified that having the ability to carry a gun on campus could have helped her when she was raped.
But opponents — including police chiefs, college and university presidents, professors and students — said that argument isn't sound. They argue the proposal is likely to help attackers as much as or more than victims and will create a more dangerous environment, while also potentially costing colleges tens of millions of dollars in increased security expenses.
"We will have campus security that will need to be armed, and I mean militarized," said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, who called on the senators to better fund mental health services instead, if campus security is the goal.
Sachs withdrew an amendment she had initially filed that would have allowed colleges and universities to opt out of allowing concealed weapons on their campuses. Twenty states, including Florida, ban concealed weapons on all college campuses. Another 23 states allow each university or college to decide its own gun policies.
Meanwhile, in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, senators also favorably recommended Senate Bill 300, which would allow anyone with a concealed-weapons permit to carry that weapon openly wherever they're allowed to carry concealed weapons. It passed by a 3-2 vote, also with Democrats opposed.
Should both bills become law, concealed-weapons permit-holders would be able to, by default, openly carry weapons on college campuses.
Businesses have concerns about the open-carry legislation. Business owners don't want to be sued if they choose not to allow people to carry weapons in their shops. Business owners already have that right under current law, but an amendment that lawmakers are still fleshing out would offer them further protection, said Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who sponsored the bill.
Gaetz — whose son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, sponsored the House version — said the bill strengthens Second Amendment rights. Florida is one of only five states and the District of Columbia that prohibit the open carrying of handguns altogether.
But critics argue an open-carry law in Florida could invoke fear, rather than protection.
"It intimidates people and it makes for a less-friendly downtown shopping environment and it's not the kind of world I want to live in," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.
Florida law requires individuals to be 21 years old to get a concealed-carry permit. Of the 1.4 million permits statewide, about 21 percent — or nearly 304,000 — of those are held by residents in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. About 11 percent, or 160,000, of those are held by residents of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
The guns-on-campus proposal drew two hours of passionate testimony Tuesday from several dozen people on both sides of the debate. There was organized support from Florida Students for Concealed Carry, which flooded the committee with comment cards in favor of the bill — although only about a dozen members were actually present. Those that spoke said students and professors are "sitting ducks" now for criminals.
"Right now, the only individuals that are armed on campus are criminals. Let us have the right to defend ourselves," said Bekah Hargrove, the group's state director. "If you're afraid of law-abiding students carrying firearms on campus, you must be terrified of the criminals that are already carrying guns around us today."
Michael Brawer, CEO of the Association of Florida Colleges, estimates it could cost $74 million to beef up security on the campuses of Florida's 28 colleges if the bill is enacted. Only five have armed security or campus police, he said.
He said Miami Dade College alone had identified $12 million in potential costs. The 28 colleges unanimously oppose the bill.
"I urge you to, please, look at other solutions" to campus security, Brawer said, "and not look at just outsourcing it to common citizens to do the job."
Contact Kristen M. Clark at email@example.com Follow @ByKristenMClark.