Two Florida Senate committees advanced controversial gun bills Tuesday that would make it easier for the 1.4 million Floridians with concealed-weapons permits to carry firearms openly in public and on college campuses and universities.
Both bills still have to be vetted by other committees before they could reach the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote. Companion bills are also being considered in the House.
A bill allowing concealed guns on Florida’s colleges and university campuses passed the Senate Higher Education Committee by a 5-3 vote, along party lines with the panel’s three Democrats opposed.
The proposal -- Senate Bill 68, sponsored by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker -- would allow anyone with a concealed weapons permit to carry firearms on college campuses.
Supporters of the “campus-carry” bill, including one woman who said she was a rape victim, argued that it would allow students, professors and staff to defend themselves against active shooters or sexual assault attacks.
“You certainly have my support to defend yourself the way you see fit,” Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, told the woman.
But opponents –- including police chiefs, college and university presidents, professors and students -- said that argument isn’t sound. They argue the proposal will only create a more dangerous environment, while also potentially costing colleges tens of millions of dollars in increased security expenses.
“We will have campus security that will need to be armed, and I mean militarized,” said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, who called on the senators to better fund mental health services instead, if campus security is their goal.
Sachs withdrew an amendment she had initially filed that would have allowed colleges and universities to opt out of allowing concealed weapons on their campuses.
Meanwhile, in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, senators also favorably recommended Senate Bill 300, which would allow anyone with a concealed-weapons permit to carry that weapon openly wherever they’re allowed to carry concealed. It passed by a 3-2 vote, also with Democrats opposed.
Businesses still have concerns about the bill, because business owners don’t want to be sued if they choose not to allow people to carry weapons in their shops. They have the right under current law to reject people carrying concealed weapons, said Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who sponsored the bill.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, tabled an amendment he proposed that would fortify the right of private property owners to dictate whether visitors can carry weapons – openly or concealed – on their land. Gaetz said he and Bradley are still working with the business industry to iron out the language.
Gaetz –- whose son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, sponsored the House version –- said the bill strengthens Second Amendment rights.
“We don’t need an outcry in favor of our constitutional rights; we just need our constitutional rights,” Don Gaetz said.
But critics argue an open-carry law in Florida could invoke fear, rather than protection.
“It intimidates people and it makes for a less-friendly downtown shopping environment and it’s not the kind of world I want to live in,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.
More than 1.4 million Floridians have concealed-weapons permits. About 21 percent – or nearly 304,000 – of those are held by residents in Miami Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. About 11 percent – or 160,000 – of those are held by residents of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.