TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Republican lawmakers fighting to give licensed gun owners the right to carry on state universities earned their first two victories Wednesday as House and Senate committees approved bills that would allow permitted students to take their guns to class.
The issue is being hotly debated, as it has in at least three previous years when bills died. That includes earlier this year in the wake of a shooting spree at Florida State University that left three people injured and the gunman dead. Supporters say schools will be safer and people with concealed weapons permits shouldn't be denied their constitutional rights to protect themselves, while opponents said the often stressful environment of universities is not the right place to allow guns.
"Campuses are places in which we stress students. We put them in situations in which they are provoked with conversations that might be uncomfortable for them, because that's part of the learning process," Tallahassee Community College President Jim Murdaugh told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "I cannot see a positive outcome that's associated with creating an atmosphere that may make people uncomfortable, that may in fact be provocative, when one of those people is armed."
Murdaugh, a former sheriff's deputy, said all 28 college presidents in the state system are opposed to the bill, as are campus police chiefs and the association representing college faculty.
But Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck spoke in favor of the bill, saying that research shows that extremely few people who have concealed weapons permit holders commit crimes with guns, but they are more successful than non-gun owners in protecting life and property.
"The risk of a carry permit holder doing gun violence is not zero, but it's awfully close to zero. In fact they're an extraordinarily law-abiding group of people, which is hardly surprising since you have to pass a background check in order to get the permit," Kleck said. "Those carry permit holders have a reason for carrying — it's for self-protection for the sake of avoiding injury and retaining property."
In 2011, a similar bill died after the emotional testimony of a father whose daughter was killed during an accidental shooting at a Florida State University. But Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, pointed out that the death happened at an off-campus fraternity where people were drinking.
"If that young woman had been hit and killed on campus by a drunk driver, would those same people want to ban motorized vehicles on campus? There are a lot of car accidents on campus all the time, but nobody wants to ban cars. There are not a lot of gun accidents on campus, but there are a lot of crimes," Hammer told the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.
The Senate committee approved the bill (SB 68) on a 3-2 vote. The House version was approved on an 8-5 vote.
Rep. Dennis Baxley said it's a matter of preserving constitutional rights. He also invoked the memory of a serial killer who preyed on women on college campuses, including Florida State.
"This isn't China. I don't want to live in communist China," Baxley said. "Doesn't anybody remember Ted Bundy? I don't want those things happening. I don't want people to be defenseless."
Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth questioned why the bill is even needed, when even supporters agree college campus are safer by comparison to other places.
"Why would we consider introducing more weaponry into an area that is already much more safe than other areas of society that already have that kind of weaponry?"