Florida Lawmakers Aim For Expanded Gun Rights In Coming Session

Jan 9, 2016

Credit Chris Kilkes via Flickr

There are few issues that find more support among the Republican Party than guns, and Florida’s GOP dominated statehouse is no exception.  When lawmakers return to Tallahassee for the 2016 regular session, they’ll be coming back loaded for bear.

Session may not begin until January 12, but lawmakers have actually been laying the groundwork for months.  In a handful of committee weeks they’ve gathered to hear—and pass—a number of bills through preliminary panels on the way to a floor vote.  One noticeable beneficiary of this head start is Rep. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota). 

“Legislatively it’s a very simple proposal all it does is repeal the prohibition currently in statute as to where concealed permit carry holders can carry their concealed firearms,” Steube says.  “One of those places is a college or university campus so this bill removes that sentence.

His bill allowing concealed weapons on college campuses is ready for the House floor.  It’s been a tougher sell in the Senate, but Steube’s partner—Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker)—has carried the measure through two committees.  None of this year’s slate of gun measures raises as much public opposition

“I am absolutely opposed to guns on campus.  Gun violence was a constant at my middle and high school,” Florida State University student Kaitlyn Hamby says. “I have been through countless shootings and lockdowns.”

But none of this year’s gun measures raises as much support.

“This bill will allow someone like me to protect myself from being raped again,” fellow FSU student Shayna Lopez-Rivas says.  

“It’s not a complicated decision, it’s not a partisan decision and it’s certainly not arming my rapist because he doesn’t care about laws anyway,” she goes on.

Republicans have marshalled near total support for the idea but a handful of Democrats with a background in law enforcement are pushing back. 

“We have bills before us that are flying through both chambers that deal with students’ ability carry firearms on campus,” Rep. Dave Kerner (D-Palm Springs) says.  “Our campus communities are some of the safest communities in the nation.”

Steube and Evers failed to pass an identical bill in the previous session, and in many ways this year’s effort looks similar.  College presidents, University presidents and school police chiefs are all lined up against it.  Guns rights groups like Florida Carry and the NRA are vocal supporters.  The measure has raced through House committees just like last time, but it’s currently idling in the Senate Judiciary Committee—the same place it stalled out last session. 

In a parallel effort, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach) is working with his father Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) on open carry legislation.  Representative Gaetz argues violent crime is 23 percent lower in states that allow open carry.

“That doesn’t mean open carry will cut our crime rate by 23 percent,” Gaetz says, “but I think it does indicate that the claims that open carry will lead to Wild Wild West, and an explosion of crime and a return to the Miami Vice days of the 80’s and back to Dodge City, I think those are perhaps more hyperbole and less grounded in the facts before us.”

But some law enforcement agencies are concerned the measure could put officers and the public in danger.  Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says the Florida Sheriffs Association’s opposition isn’t about restricting gun rights.

“The opposition is to creating an environment that is not safe for Florida,” Gualtieri says, “not good for families, not family friendly, not good for tourism and not good for our economy.”

His organization is fairly unified in its opposition, but the state’s police chiefs are a different story.  In mid-December the Florida Police Chiefs Association agreed to back the plan if the Gaetzes would tack on amendments clarifying what officers can and can’t do as well as shielding them from frivolous lawsuits. 

Despite a narrow vote in its second House Committee, the bill seems likely to make it to the floor with ease.  Its final committee stop is dominated by Republicans—several of whom have already voted in favor of the bill.  In the Senate, Don Gaetz has made it through one committee. 

Finally, lawmakers are considering changes to Florida’s Stand Your Ground provisions.  The controversial law has been at the center of cases that have grabbed national attention—and not in the good way.  But Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) and Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) say the law needs to do more to protect shooters. 

“The citizen who’s claiming self-defense has the burden of proof,” Baxley complains, “In other words, under this ruling the accused is now guilty until they can prove themselves innocent.”

Baxley and his backers say the current practice—a preliminary hearing to determine if a defendant can invoke the defense—should place the burden of proof entirely on the prosecutor.  Right now, the defendant has to show the majority of evidence backs up their self-defense claim. 

Bradley has shepherded the bill all the way to senate floor, but in the House the measure ran into Kerner. 

With a pair of late filed amendments he thoroughly gutted Baxley’s proposal—over the Republican’s frustrated complaints.

“I’ve never seen that amendment, and I’ve had this bill out there for weeks,” Baxley said in disbelief.  “And no sir, I don’t appreciate you coming in here and amending it without a discussion with a sponsor of the bill.”

With those changes appended, the House committee voted the measure down.  There’s still a slim chance it could come back if it passes the senate and the house chooses to take up the bill.  But it’s rare—as a matter of deference lawmakers don’t usually bring bills to the floor that have already failed in committee.