With lawmakers split along party lines, a Senate education committee Monday approved a controversial bill that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on the campuses of state colleges and universities.
The Senate Higher Education Committee voted 6-3 to approve the bill (SB 176), which has drawn opposition from many university leaders but has the backing of the politically powerful National Rifle Association.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, pointed to a lack of evidence that crimes, suicides or tragedies increase on campuses in states where concealed weapons are allowed.
"In the absence of evidence, one is left then with the Constitution of the United States, and I'm in favor of all 10 of those amendments,'' Gaetz said, alluding to the Second Amendment.
But Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said she doesn't think the bill is responsible, saying young adults are still maturing. She also warned that allowing students to carry guns on campus with the added "toxic mix of drugs, alcohol, academic disputes and troubled relationships is courting deadly consequences."
"I just think that this is an opportunity for us to step back and take another look and utilize common sense when we look at the totality of young adults,'' Joyner said.
The bill has been approved by two Senate committees, and a House version (HB 4005) has been approved by one subcommittee. Each vote was along party lines, with Republicans supporting the proposals and Democrats opposed.
The debate about the issue has been shadowed, at least in part, by a shooting incident in November at the campus library at Florida State University. The gunman, a Florida State graduate, wounded three people before he was fatally shot by police officers.
Supporters of allowing people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns argue that it could help students defend themselves on campus.
"The plain truth is campuses are not safe,'' NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said. "They are gun-free zones where murderers and rapists may commit their crimes without fear of being harmed by their victims."
But the bill's opponents contend that allowing guns on campuses could create public-safety problems. Perhaps the highest-profile opponent of the bill is Florida State University President John Thrasher, a former Senate rules chairman and House speaker who was a longtime Republican leader before taking the FSU job in November.
"Every single president, and the Board of Governors, think it's a bad idea for college campuses,'' Thrasher told The News Service of Florida last week. "I think members of the Legislature are starting to sense that, but we’ve still got a long way to go in this session."
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, voted for the bill Monday but also raised the possibility of trying to "meet somewhere in the middle," on the issue, such as requiring increased training for people who would be allowed to carry guns on campus.