A House bill that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on the campuses of Florida colleges and universities passed its final committee Thursday and is headed to the House floor.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 12-3 to approve the measure (HB 4005) by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota. In the Senate, an identical bill (SB 176), by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, has passed two committees and faces two more.
Lawmakers are moving forward with the proposal despite opposition from officials in the higher-education system. The debate follows a shooting incident in November at Florida State University that left three people wounded.
Much of the discussion during Thursday's meeting focused on whether the measure would make campuses more or less safe.
National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, for instance, contended that potential victims of rape and other crimes can't wait for law enforcement to arrive.
"The plain truth is, campuses are not safe," Hammer said. "They are gun-free zones where murderers and rapists may commit their crimes without fear of being harmed by the victims. Police do the best job they can, but the reality is they are not there when the attack occurs."
Other supporters, like gun-rights proponent Eric Friday, said people with concealed-weapons licenses are not to be feared — but criminals are.
"Nobody will tell you that rules or laws keep guns off campus," Friday said. "A person who is willing to murder another human being does not care about any rule or any law. They do what they want to do.”
"It's not us you need to worry about," added Rebekah Hargrove, another supporter. "Criminals are going to be criminals."
But Kaitlyn Hamby, a sophomore at Florida State University, pointed out that the police chiefs of the state's 12 public universities oppose the bill.
"If they are the people who dedicate their lives to protecting us, why are we trying to go against them?" Hamby asked. "You may be arming the victims, but you'll also be arming the perpetrators."
Marshall Ogletree, interim executive director of the United Faculty of Florida, disagreed with a staff analysis that indicated the bill was cost-neutral. He said it would cost "$45 million out the gate… $1.6 million per institution in our system to ramp up training, personnel and equipment needs."
Ogletree also said that "the vast majority of women on campus are under 21" and thus ineligible for concealed-weapons permits. "If we want to protect women, why not allow the use of tasers?" he asked.
"As families, we understand why schools would decide that guns have no place in a college or university classroom, or anywhere on campus," said Steve Downey of the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. "We picture our own children surrounded by guns on campus, and we know what the dangers are.”
In a closing statement, Steube argued that in order to qualify for a concealed-weapons license, Floridians must have clean records and meet a host of qualifications.
"We're not handing out guns to every college student," he said. "Gun-free zones didn't stop the shooter at Virginia Tech… It didn't stop the shooter at Sandy Hook. It only stops law-abiding citizens' ability to defend themselves."
The committee also passed another Steube-sponsored bill (HB 19) which would give school superintendents the ability to appoint employees or volunteers to carry weapons at schools. But the bill's Senate companion (SB 180) is stalled in an education committee.