TALLAHASSEE — Reigniting a contentious debate, Florida lawmakers pushed ahead Wednesday with a bill that would allow people to carry guns on college campuses.
The campus concealed carry bill and another proposal backed by the National Rifle Association were the first two measures passed by any legislative committee in preparation for the 2016 session that begins in January.
Supporters say the bill by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, and Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, to allow concealed weapons at colleges and universities — which passed both the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee and Senate Criminal Justice Committee — is about public safety. Concealed carry permit holders, they say, could help keep campuses safe in the event of a mass shooting or other violent crime.
Florida State University student Shayna Lopez-Rivas, a rape victim, said she would feel safer if allowed to carry her gun on campus. "I resolved to never be a victim again," she said. "I will not be a sitting duck for a rapist or a shooter."
But the bill (HB 4001, SB 68) has drawn ire from state university presidents and police chiefs and the State University System's Board of Governors, as well as gun control advocates.
"When I applied to UCF, I wasn't expecting to walk the halls and attend class wondering if the person next to me was trained to carry a firearm," said Adam Whitmer, a former Marine and instructor in the Corps' firearms training.
College campuses are high-tension places. They're full of young people who are stressed and trying to learn about the world and themselves, bill opponents argue, not to mention the drug and alcohol use that's so prevalent in universities.
"Allow them to go to college in a place they can make mistakes," said Sean Pittman, lobbyist for the Florida State University Student Government Association. "This is the place they become adults. Those mistakes shouldn't be deadly."
Currently, 20 states, including Florida, ban concealed weapons on all college campuses. Another 23 states allow each university or college to decide its own gun policies.
An attempt to pass the bill last year stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. All but one Republican supported the latest measure as it passed out of committee, and every Democrat opposed.
Supporters point out that concealed carry permit holders must undergo background checks. And they say that those who intend to commit a crime will do so regardless of whether it is legal.
"The plain truth is campuses are supposed to be gun-free zones," said Marion Hammer, a lobbyist with the National Rifle Association. "They are gun-free zones where murderers, rapists and shooters can commit crimes without fear of being harmed by their victims."
Hammer was also key to negotiation on a bill (HB 41, SB 130) making it a misdemeanor to fire a weapon in densely populated neighborhood for recreation or celebration. It's also supported by the Florida Police Chiefs Association, which unanimously passed criminal justice panels in both the House and Senate.
The bill was first filed by Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, last spring in response to a St. Petersburg man who set up a gun range in his yard, which neighbors feared would put them at risk of being accidentally shot. Police couldn't charge Joseph Carannante with a crime, because it was determined his intent to fire a gun wasn't illegal.
Under the new proposal, sponsored by Rouson, Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk County, and Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, he still wouldn't be prosecuted.
Under the bill, people can only be prosecuted for a misdemeanor for firing a weapon if they either were not trying to protect themselves or they were acting in a way that could reasonably harm someone. One example of justified use, Richter suggested, could be "a homeowner shooting a poisonous snake that has slithered into the neighborhood."
Contact Michael Auslen at email@example.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.