In the wake of a shooting on the Florida State University campus just a few miles away and after an hour of sometimes-emotional debate, a House panel Tuesday approved a bill that would allow concealed weapons to be carried at colleges and universities.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted 8-4 along party lines to pass the measure (HB 4005), which would allow anyone with a concealed-carry permit to have a weapon -- usually a firearm -- on campus. Currently, people are banned from carrying such weapons at Florida colleges and universities, with the exception of stun guns or similar devices.
But Rep. Greg Steube, the Sarasota Republican sponsoring the bill, said the new measure would empower the likely small number of college students who have concealed-weapons licenses to defend themselves and their fellow students. Steube said only 2,271 of the state's 21-year-olds have concealed-weapons licenses; no one under 21 is allowed to receive a permit. There are almost 1.2 million college students in Florida.
State data show that 246,632 Floridians between the ages of 21 and 35 have the permits, according to an analysis of the bill by legislative staff.
Steube said he had worked on the legislation before the shooting at FSU in November, but the attack highlighted the need for the bill. Only the gunman was killed in that incident, though one of the three victims of the shooting was paralyzed from the waist down.
"What I'm trying to do is prevent further loss of life by giving God-fearing and law-abiding citizens who have gone through background checks and all the things they have to do to get a (permit) to be able to defend themselves and their family," Steube told the committee.
Supporters said current law actually makes students on campus less safe.
"This bill eliminates a possible pool of victims," said Brant Hargrove, a member of the public who spoke in support of the legislation. "Predators know where victims are. They're in places where people cannot defend themselves."
But opponents, including several students and faculty members who showed up to argue against the legislation, said drugs, alcohol and stress prevalent on college campuses made the atmosphere particularly bad for allowing guns.
"I can only imagine walking through midterms week or finals week and being afraid, because these people, at times, college students break down, especially when they're in engineering and in the sciences and mathematics," said John Quiroz, a 22-year-old political-science student at the University of South Florida. "I just want to remind you all that these are young men and women trying to better themselves. They don't need ... this constant fear of violence being on their college campuses."
Marjorie Sanfilippo, an associate dean of faculty at Eckerd College, said she often has to deal with angry students -- and sometimes asks campus security officials to be on hand. She also pointed out that concealed weapons aren't allowed at legislative meetings.
"That protects you," she said. "I only ask that you give us the same respect in college settings."
But Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the presences of drugs, alcohol and parties at college campuses argued for the bill.
"Folks, if you're living in that kind of environment, you better carry a firearm. Because you could get raped, beaten, or worse," he said.
Steube's bill still has to clear the Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee and the Judiciary Committee before heading to the full House. A Senate version (SB 176) hasn't been scheduled for a hearing in any of its four committee stops.