Plan to allow guns on college campuses goes to full Florida House

Cori Sorensen, an elementary school teacher in Highland, Utah, receives firearms training in Utah during the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings. A progun group paid for 200 teachers’ training.
Cori Sorensen, an elementary school teacher in Highland, Utah, receives firearms training in Utah during the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings. A progun group paid for 200 teachers’ training.
Published Nov. 20, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — A controversial plan, backed by the National Rifle Association, that would allow guns on 40 public college and university campuses statewide is ready for Florida's 120 House members to vote on when they begin their 2016 session in January.

The proposal (House Bill 4001) from Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, made swift progress through three House committees this fall and cleared its final hurdle Thursday, despite passionate objections from the higher education community and campus law enforcement.

The House Judiciary Committee easily approved the bill by a 13-5 vote. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee — a co-sponsor of the bill — joined Republicans in supporting it. The panel's five other Democrats were opposed.

"Time and time again, we've seen shootings in gun-free zones, and I don't believe that should be policy in the state of Florida," Steube said of his bill.

But university and college presidents and administrators, campus police chiefs, faculty and other education groups vehemently oppose allowing guns on campus. They said again Thursday that guns don't have any place in an environment that should be dedicated to learning, and that allowing campus-carry could make emergency situations even more chaotic.

The Senate companion bill (SB 68) — sponsored by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker — also has gained favor this fall in two committees: criminal justice and higher education. It awaits a third and final hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it stalled last year.

The proposal would not affect private colleges and universities in Florida, such as the University of Miami.

Gun-rights advocates — led most vocally by the NRA, Florida Carry and students supporting conceal-carry — argue that the proposed law honors their Second Amendment rights, would "empower victims," and would give students, faculty and staff a better chance at defending themselves in extreme situations, such as during an active shooter on campus or a sexual assault.

Education advocates say the Legislature shouldn't "outsource" campus security to untrained citizens. The bill would allow more than 1.4 million Floridians with a concealed-weapons permit to carry on campus, and critics say training requirements to receive those permits are minimal.

Police forces at Florida's 12 state universities report being understaffed. Should the bill become law, Florida's 28 colleges have said they'd have to spend more than $74 million to beef up their campus security because only five campuses have police or armed security.

Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, initially dismissed that cost figure as "inflammatory" because it isn't included in the legislative staff analysis. After Michael Brawer, CEO of the Association of Florida Colleges, elaborated on it — describing it as an "unfunded mandate" — Hudson asked: "If campus security is such a concern, why haven't you done anything about it thus far?"

"It has boiled down to the inability of our college appropriations to support the costs it would take," Brawer said.

Challenging Hudson's criticism of the colleges' priorities, Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, said the Legislature should shoulder some of the responsibility — prompting Hudson to shake his head.

"We've starved our educational system," Kerner said. "I don't think it's fair to sit here and blame (the colleges) for not having the most robust security system they can when we're constantly underfunding them."

The campus-carry bill was not assigned to budget committees for vetting on the financial impact to taxpayers. The legislative analysis lists only "indeterminate" costs.

Thursday's vote in the House Judiciary Committee gave the NRA two out of three potential victories this week, which is the second-to-last committee week before the 2016 session.

A bill allowing concealed-weapons permit holders to openly carry guns narrowly cleared a House budget subcommittee on Thursday by a 7-6 vote, advancing to its third and final committee hearing in the House. If that bill and the campus-carry bill both become law, concealed-carry permit holders could openly carry on college and university campuses.

Meanwhile, though, a proposal that would enhance Florida's "stand your ground" law faltered this week, when a House committee deadlocked on it. It continues to move ahead in the Senate.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark.