Guns-on-campus proposal likely dead for 2016 session

Representatives from campus police departments listen to debate in the Florida Legislature last March on a bill that would allow students to carry guns on college campuses. The measure, brought back for consideration this year, was killed Thursday by the chairman of a Senate panel that hears all gun bills. [KATHLEEN MCGRORY | Times/Herald]

Published Jan. 22, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — For the second year in a row, a key Republican senator from Miami has all but killed an effort to allow concealed guns on the campuses of the state's 40 public colleges and universities.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla confirmed Thursday that he won't schedule a hearing on the controversial legislation (SB 68), which he also wouldn't take up last session.

Without being vetted in Diaz de la Portilla's committee, the bill goes no further in the Florida Senate, even as an identical measure is moving swiftly through the Florida House.

The bills — sponsored by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, and Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota — are a priority for the National Rifle Association, Florida Carry and student groups that support allowing the more than 1.4 million people with concealed weapons permits in Florida to carry their weapons on public university and college campuses.

But Diaz de la Portilla said, "I don't think this is a Second Amendment issue."

"I think what we're talking about here is campus safety, and the best way to address that issue, and whether the proposed cure is worse than the disease," he said.

Evers, the Senate sponsor, told reporters Diaz de la Portilla didn't talk to him about his decision, although the two had previously discussed the proposal.

"It would make a statement to the residents of Florida to bring it up and actually have a vote on it," Evers said.

Steube — who's shepherding the House companion, HB 4001, which is ready for a floor vote — suggested lawmakers could use some procedural maneuvering to keep the proposal moving, albeit in a different form.

"One person basically deciding what the public policy of the state is going to be isn't really how this process should work," Steube said, suggesting the campus-carry plan could be added as an amendment to other gun- or education-related proposals under consideration.

While that's possible, the odds are slim, and it likely wouldn't be well-received by Senate leadership.

"Anything's possible . . . but the chairman (Diaz de la Portilla) would probably not take too kindly to that," Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said. "We were hearing from members on all sides that there was a little discomfort with (campus carry)."

In a coincidence of timing — and before Diaz de la Portilla's decision was widely known — U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, appeared at a Capitol news conference to add her voice to the Democrats' opposition to pro-gun bills moving through the Legislature.

"I'm here to sound the alarm to make sure that they wake up and understand that they should be listening to people,'' she said. As a mother of twins who are juniors in high school, she said, "it's really troubling and disturbing to me to think they could be on a college campus where another student may decide to solve a problem with a gun."

Allowing concealed weapons on campuses has widespread opposition from college and university presidents, campus police chiefs, the League of Women Voters and most Democrats, as well as several student and faculty organizations. College and university administrators estimated they'd have to spend millions on increased security measures and police training, if it ever became law.

Patti Brigham, chairwoman of the league's gun safety committee, praised Diaz de la Portilla's decision as "bold."

"I think he's seeing all the stakeholders who really have been so strongly opposed to campus carry and he's listened, and we're appreciative of that," Brigham said, saying the group is "cautiously optimistic" the legislation is dead for the 2016 session.

Supporters of the bill expressed frustration and disappointment but said they'll keep fighting. They argued, like Evers, that Diaz de la Portilla should have given the proposal a fair hearing, even if it failed.

"(He) should vote 'no' to the bill if he truly does not support it, but his job is to put bills on the agenda that have high public interest, which campus carry does have," said Rebekah Hargrove, a Florida State University graduate student and director of Florida Students for Concealed Carry Inc.

Meanwhile, a related proposal — also backed by gun rights advocates — will continue to move forward. Diaz de la Portilla said he does plan to hold a hearing on legislation to give concealed-weapons permit holders the ability to openly carry their weapons.

"To me, the debate is better about open carry because you still keep all the exemptions in place," Gardiner said. "I don't think there was ever consensus on how you get campus carry done."

Amendments to the open-carry legislation (SB 300 / HB 163) have been suggested by both Florida sheriffs and police chiefs, and it's likely some of those could be folded in to make the plan more palatable to critics. The father-son duo of Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, is sponsoring those bills.

Evers, although disappointed about his own bill, said the open-carry proposal is "even more important to me than campus carry."

"Standing up for the Second Amendment and supporting the Second Amendment is never a bad thing," he said.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark.