TALLAHASSEE — The NRA was handed a rare defeat Wednesday when Senate Republicans scrapped plans to allow some people to bring guns on college campuses.
The defeat was born of a tragic fraternity house shooting at Florida State University on Jan. 9. About 1 a.m. Amy Cowie, 20, watched her twin sister die in her arms after Amy's boyfriend accidentally shot her with his AK-47-style rifle.
Amy tried CPR as blood gushed from Ashley's chest, but couldn't bring her back.
The shooting had a close tie to one of the most powerful members of the Senate, John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. As Rules Committee chairman, he wields considerable influence over which bills can reach the full floor of the Senate for a vote.
Thrasher also happens to be a close friend of the Cowie family. The twins' father, Robert Cowie, is his dentist. Thrasher, a huge FSU booster, urged the twins from Orange Park to attend the university.
"It's beyond personal for me," Thrasher said. "Any other time I might support something like this, but I just can't."
The bill would have allowed concealed weapons permit holders to carry their guns openly, including on school campuses. On Wednesday, after days of backroom negotiations, the sponsor of SB 234, Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, agreed to amend the bill in the Criminal Justice Committee he runs to restore current law prohibiting the presence of firearms at preschools through colleges.
"It seemed to be a big deal," he said afterward. "There's still a lot of good things left in the bill."
Evers says he intends the bill, which may face a vote at the committee's next meeting Monday, to protect people with concealed weapons permits from getting in trouble for accidentally revealing their guns. The bill would allow concealed-weapon permit holders to carry their firearms out in the open, as long as they wore identification and stored their weapons in safe holsters.
At Wednesday's meeting, the committee considered the bill during the last 20 minutes, leaving little time for the 20 or so people who hoped to make a public comment. More than 100 observers packed the room.
FSU police Chief David Perry was among university police officials and students in attendance who oppose the bill. He said he would have been against it even if Ashley Cowie's death never occurred, and he remained hesitant to label the bill's revision a victory. "It ended with a question in my mind of what was the final resolution," he said. "I'm cautiously optimistic."
Marion Hammer, longtime lobbyist for the Unified Sportsmen of Florida and a former president of the NRA, was not called on to speak during the limited public comment period and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
She defended Evers' bill at last month's meeting, saying the bill would not have affected Cowie's death because the accused shooter is younger than 21 and so could not get a concealed weapons permit. "There's a lot of safety by allowing guns on campus," she said. "That's how a lot of us protect ourselves because law enforcement can't be there when we need them. Law enforcement is not stopping rapes on campus, and not stopping a lot of crimes."
At that same meeting, the twins' father made an impassioned plea against the bill, saying it would make universities more dangerous places. The speech evoked such an emotional response that Evers postponed a vote on the bill.
Cowie remained opposed but did not return for the meeting Wednesday.
"I think what happened was a perfect example of why guns shouldn't be on campus," Cowie said in an interview this week. "Partying late at night, with alcohol and drugs: It's not an environment where guns should be present."
Authorities charged the shooter, Evan Wilhelm, 20, with negligent manslaughter. The bullet that killed Cowie also struck the wrist of 20-year-old Keith Savino of Tampa. Wilhelm told the campus police officers that shooting guns was a hobby of his, and that he did not know the rifle was loaded. He also told them he had been drinking and smoking marijuana.
The shooting occurred at a private apartment complex that was built on property owned by FSU. Prosecutors are reviewing whether Wilhelm might have violated the current restrictions on guns on school campuses, given the university's ownership of the land.
Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who sponsored the schools amendment, did not attend the Feb. 22 committee meeting in which Cowie made his plea. She said she was persuaded by a large lobbying effort of college students and administrators.
The revision was the right thing to do, Cowie said.
"If my making a statement would possibly prevent another family from going through what we did, I knew I'd make the effort," he said. "I think Ashley would be proud of me."
Two other bills this session take up gun rights, one that would restrict physicians from asking patients about the presence of firearms in the home, and another that would ensure that local governments in Florida can't pass gun-control laws. All three are supported by the NRA, one of the most powerful lobbies in the state Capitol.