A proposal that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to pack heat while hitting the books on college and university campuses notched it first two successes Wednesday.
The legislation (SB 68 and HB 4001), which won support from criminal-justice committees in the House and Senate, is widely opposed by academic leaders.
Proponents argued that the proposal would make colleges safer, while opponents questioned the need to allow weapons into an already stress-filled atmosphere.
"I don't feel like your constitutional rights should stop at a line in the sand," said Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Greg Evers, a Baker Republican who is sponsoring the Senate bill.
The Senate committee voted 3-2 along party lines to support the proposal, which is filed for the 2016 legislative session. The Senate proposal must still get through three additional committees, including the Judiciary Committee, which did not take up the issue during the 2015 legislative session.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted 8-5, with Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, joining four Democrats in opposing the measure. Pilon, saying he is a National Rifle Association member, noted a desire for additional training for campus law enforcement.
House bill sponsor Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, indicated the measure could make schools safer since concealed-carry permit holders must be 21. Also, he said current law prohibits military veterans who have returned to school on the "GI Bill" from carrying weapons.
"Most of those people have more training than our law-enforcement officers do," Steube said. "I was an infantry officer. We trained for years on how to execute different scenarios, and so have all these different military members."
The proposal continues to face opposition from faculty members, university and college presidents and campus law enforcement.
Tallahassee Community College President Jim Murdaugh said the presidents remain unified in their opposition, as they were when the proposal was debated during the 2015 session.
"What we do in a campus environment is stimulate and sometime provoke the students who are on our campuses in order for them to learn," Murdaugh told the House panel. "We cause them to challenge what they believe, and sometimes that results in friction between faculty and students. The idea of having someone armed in that kind of environment … is not something that leads, in my estimation, likely to good outcomes."
Florida State University President John Thrasher, a former lawmaker who helped derail a similar measure in 2011, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday that allowing more guns on campus will not make schools safer.
"We live in a different environment where, if you look at the footprint of this campus and you see where this campus is and where it goes, and then you look at the outskirts of it, there are multiple places to be served alcohol, there are multiple types of high-risk behaviors that go on at universities when you have 42,000 students," Thrasher said. "I frankly think it's just a mistake to do it. I've said that. I'm going to continue to say it. I believe in the Second Amendment. I supported it when I was in the Legislature, but I think there certainly are reasonable exceptions. This is one of those."
But a number of students, some pointing to a November 2014 shooting at Florida State's Strozier Library that left three people injured, told lawmakers Wednesday that they don't feel safe. Even though the gunman in the Strozier Library shooting was killed by first responders, there remains a two- or three-minute response time — time in which people with concealed-weapons licenses could react, several students noted.
Shayna Lopez-Rivas, a Florida State University who said she has been sexually assaulted, said she would have not been assaulted on campus if she had been allowed to carry a gun. University of Florida student Brandon Woolf, a vice president of the campus chapter of Student for Concealed Carry, said students should be allowed to defend themselves.
"A lot can happen in two to three minutes," Woolf said. "Nobody here wants to call my parents and tell them I was killed while hiding behind a desk."
But Florida State University music professor Matthew Lata, a member of the campus' chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, said such views are in the minority.
"The majority of students don't want it. The vast majority of faculty don't want it. Our presidents don't want it. Our (university system) Board of Governors doesn't want it. Our law enforcement, most importantly, doesn't want it," Lata told the Senate committee. "At what point should legislators listen to the people?"
Since 2011, the number of concealed-weapon licenses in Florida has grown from just over 853,000 to more than 1.5 million. The numbers have been boosted during the past couple of months as the state is now fast-tracking the license process for active-duty military members and honorably discharged veterans.
The committees' support for the campus concealed-weapons proposal came as Florida State University this week entered into an agreement with the Second Amendment advocacy group Florida Carry. In the agreement, the university said it will not "detain, arrest, or discipline" any person lawfully in possession of a weapon or firearm in their private vehicle or lawfully in possession of a handgun securely encased in a private vehicle.
Florida Carry filed a lawsuit against the school over a football "game day" guide that initially included a provision about barring guns in vehicles on campus. The school later updated the language to reflect a 2013 ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal that said the University of North Florida could not prevent firearms from being stowed in cars on campus.