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State universities would be blocked from regulating guns on campus under a potentially far-reaching ruling handed down Tuesday by a Florida appeals court.
The 1st District Court of Appeal — in a rare opinion decided by the entire appeals court — sided with a University of North Florida student and a gun rights group that challenged a university rule banning students on campus from storing guns in their cars.
In a lengthy decision that prompted a strong dissent as well as multiple concurring opinions, the appeals court ruled that the Florida Legislature has pre-empted the regulation of guns by local governments and state agencies.
The court decided the state's 12 public universities are covered by this 2011 law. The ruling notes that while universities have the power to restrict lawful conduct — like drinking or smoking on campus — that power does not extend to regulating guns.
"Restricting recreational activities is a far cry from restricting a fundamental, constitutional right to keep and bear arms for self-defense," wrote Judge Clay Roberts whose opinion was supported by the majority of the 15 judges who serve in the court.
Eric Friday, the attorney representing student Alexandria Lainez and Florida Carry Inc., said the court had properly considered "the facts of this case" and came to the right conclusion.
"The university does not have the right to pass rules and regulations about who may have firearms," Friday said.
A spokeswoman for UNF said the university was reviewing the case and had not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.
Judge Philip Padovano wrote a stinging dissent, noting that voters approved a constitutional amendment creating the current stand-alone state university system and giving it powers different from other agencies.
"These opinions pursue differing legal theories but they all arrive at the same conclusion: that a state university is powerless to prohibit students from bringing firearms to school," he wrote. "This remarkable conclusion is not supported in the law, and with due respect for my colleagues, I believe that it defies common sense."
Padovano argued that no one would ever doubt that a university professor could stop a student from making a religious speech in class even though the student has First Amendment rights to make the same speech elsewhere.
Judge Scott Makar argued that the Legislature has had a long history of letting Floridians store guns in their cars and that universities do not have unlimited authority.
"... If universities can regulate away a Second Amendment right, why not a First Amendment one? Or one protected by the Fourth or Fifth Amendment? The point is rhetorical, but nonetheless meaningful because campus authority unchecked can go astray of constitutional norms," Makar wrote.
Florida law currently prevents anyone from possessing or exhibiting guns on school campuses, including university and college campuses.
That same law, however, says the automatic ban doesn't apply to guns kept in cars. School districts have the option to adopt policies to prohibit guns in cars parked on campus. UNF attorneys tried to argue that the university falls under this exception but that position was rejected by a majority of the court.
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said that lawmakers may need to step in. He said he does not think people should be able to take guns on college campuses. Thrasher was instrumental two years ago in blocking a proposal to allow guns to be openly carried on campus.
"If colleges can't regulate guns we may need to change that," Thrasher said.