Four months after a mentally ill gunman wounded three students at Florida State University, state legislators are considering a bill that would allow holders of concealed weapons permits to carry their weapons onto public university and college campuses.
Supporters, including the National Rifle Association, say permit holders shouldn't be forced to abandon their weapons simply because they walk onto a campus. They point out that permit holders must be at least 21, pass a background check and take a safety class or have served honorably in the military.
State Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, the bill's sponsor, said an armed student or employee may have been able to stop former FSU student Myron May's Nov. 20 shooting spree before police arrived and killed him just outside the library.
"Why are we stripping people's inherent right to self-defense just because they're on a college campus?" he said. "Why can they not carry on campus when they can carry at a shopping plaza, a restaurant, a mall, a park?"
Opponents include Florida State University President John Thrasher, formerly a powerful legislator, along with the other 11 public university presidents, the campus police chiefs and the system's Board of Governors.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Meritt Island, has expressed reservations about the bill (HB 4005).
"I have my concerns about maybe a 21-year-old having a few drinks and carrying a gun," he said.
Eight other states allow concealed carry permit holders to bring their weapons to campus and 23 states leave it up to the school.
Law student Harrison DuBosar, government affairs adviser for FSU's student government, said polling shows a large majority of students opposed to campus carry. The student Senate unanimously passed a resolution against it, and students will lobby on FSU Day in the Legislature March 17, he said.
At the University of South Florida, the College Republicans favor it, but most faculty and students oppose it, student body President Jean Cocco said.
"We need to look at practicality, especially in residence halls," he said. "College kids like to party."
But Marion Hammer, a former NRA national president and head of its Florida chapter, said opponents' arguments are "emotional hysterics not based on fact."
"All the data from other states shows that guns on campus are not a problem when they're carried by licensed adults" with concealed carry permits, "the safest group of gun owners, even safer than law enforcement."
The proposal has passed criminal justice committees in both the House and Senate, with the majority Republicans unanimously in favor and Democrats all opposed. The proposal next goes to higher education committees. Senate chairwoman Kelli Stargel said she favors the bill, and Steube said House chairwoman Elizabeth Porter has told him she'll grant it a hearing.
Still, Crisafulli said he's unsure whether it will pass.
"Do I give it a great chance of passing this year knowing that there's strong emotions on all sides? I don't know," he said.
If the bill fails, it will go against a long-standing trend, University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett said.
The NRA "is rarely beaten in this state when they take a strong position," he said. In the 2014 Florida election, it spent nearly $2 million, much of it in independent expenditures, including opposing Democratic nominee Charlie Crist for governor. He lost.
In 2008, Jewett noted, the Legislature overrode objections of the state's most powerful business interests, including Walt Disney World, the state Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Retail Federation, to pass an NRA-backed law preventing employers from banning guns in cars in their parking lots.
Gun control advocates could benefit because it's a non-election year, Jewett said. Legislators "are aware that the public pays more attention when they're about to come up for election."
Hammer said that won't make a difference. "We keep records."