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House Democrats Defect Over Guns On Campus

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee)
The Florida Channel

To this point, Democrats in the Florida Legislature have presented a unified front in opposition to a bill allowing concealed weapons on public university and college campuses.  But Wednesday two Democratic House members broke with their caucus to support the plan.

The issue of guns on campus isn’t partisan for Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee).  She ties her support to concerns about protecting students from sexual predators.

“I think all women ought to have a strategy of self-defense,” Rehwinkel-Vasilinda says.

And this is common—in many states across the nation, the argument for allowing weapons on campus has taken advantage of a broader conversation about rape at universities.  Some advocates suggest the mere threat of concealed weapons will dissuade predators.  Others argue giving students the option to carry a firearm puts a powerful tool in their corner.  But for Rehwinkel-Vasilinda the question is personal. 

She says while not everyone will want a gun, “I was sent to college with a hand gun by my father who trained me to use one.  And thank God.  Because I had a rape attempted on me, that I was wondering whether I was going to tell this publicly or not, and was able to get to my gun, and was able to stop the rape.”

Rep. Katie Edwards (D-Sunrise) joined Rehwinkel-Vasilinda in supporting the measure.  Edwards says if critics are uncomfortable with concealed weapons at schools, what they really need to do is push for changes in licensing requirements.

“I think the real issue before us,” Edwards says, “If we have a problem with people on campus, I would say the appropriate venue is to go back and visit who is eligible to carry.”

But Rep. Kristin Jacobs (D-Coconut Creek) and Rep. Dave Kerner (D-Palm Springs) both spoke out against the bill.  They’re the only other two Democrats on the committee.  

“I refuse to believe that the answer, the policy answer, the legislative answer to the culture of sexual assault, to the culture of mental health and mass shootings on our campus, is arming our students with weapons,” Kerner says. 

“And having served as a police officer,” Kerner continues, “having risked my life to protect our community, I’m very deferential to those who do it for a living.”

Kerner is alluding to unified opposition from police chiefs at Florida’s universities.  University of South Florida Police Chief JD Withrow and University of Florida chief Linda Stump-Kurnick were on hand for public comment.  Stump-Kurnick says adding guns in an emergency situation divides police attention.

“If that good natured person with that concealed weapons permit is just carrying that gun,” Stump-Kernick says, “and all of the sudden, because they’re in that shock of that moment, whether they’ve used it or not, if it’s visible to me, I have to address that.  And I have to address that as a threat.  So that’s going to slow us down.”

Stump-Kurnick also argues if the existing ban is lifted, officers won’t have probable cause to ask people on campus if they have a weapon until that weapon is brandished or a threat is made. 

Barring some major change of heart among Republican lawmakers, it seems likely the Governor will soon have to decide whether to allow concealed carry license holders to bring their weapons onto campus.

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.