Politics & Government

Florida again debates guns on college campuses, sees Texas as real-time example

By Kristen M. Clark

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Police investigate a shooting scene at Strozier Library on Florida State campus on Nov. 20, 2014, in Tallahassee.
Police investigate a shooting scene at Strozier Library on Florida State campus on Nov. 20, 2014, in Tallahassee. Associated Press

As Florida lawmakers prepare to grapple again — for the third year in a row — with whether to allow concealed guns on public college and university campuses, another state has recent experience with this polarizing debate.

Conservative lawmakers in Texas also took several years before ultimately approving guns on their state's campuses two years ago. They, too, faced resistance from many university presidents and attracted both praise and outrage from residents, as Florida lawmakers are starting to experience again this year.

Texas' law took effect Aug. 1, making the state the eighth — and most recent — to allow concealed guns on public higher education campuses. Twenty-three other states leave the policy up to individual colleges and universities, while 19 states, including Florida, have essentially a full ban.

When Texas' law was implemented this summer, "the reaction was varied," said David Daniel, deputy chancellor of the University of Texas System, which has 14 institutions including UT Dallas, where Daniel was president until 2015.

"On some campuses, there was a very high level of angst, tension and it was a distraction from the core work of the university," Daniel said, whereas in "a small area with predominantly ranching communities where people are comfortable carrying firearms in a routine manner, it could be not a big deal."

Texas has about 40 public universities, while Florida has 12. Florida has more active concealed weapons permits: 1.7 million compared with Texas' nearly 1.2 million, as of Dec. 31.

After five months under the law, "we have been fortunate that there hasn't been any major issues that have ratcheted up the level of concern," said Chris Meyer, associate vice president for safety and security at Texas A&M University. "Campus has relaxed from the very tense state it was in. We're much closer to being back to normal."

While controversy has tempered in Texas, it's escalating again in Florida as the legislative session approaches in March. But it's unclear if renewed guns-on-campus proposals have enough support to pass a Republican-led Legislature that has several dozen new members in 2017. Previous attempts stalled.

Florida's proposed law is straightforward compared to the one Texas approved, which affords some flexibility to university leaders.

Florida lawmakers' plan simply strips "college and university facilities" from a list in a state statute of about a dozen places where concealed weapons are banned.

By comparison, Texas lawmakers added a whole section to their state law allowing the right to carry concealed but — uniquely from other states — also detailing narrow guidelines in which university presidents could adopt specific rules. Taking into consideration "specific safety considerations" and "the uniqueness of the campus environment," the law lets presidents somewhat regulate where guns still cannot be carried on campus.

Daniel called the flexibility "a good thing" because "it allowed universities to look at buildings and rooms and figure out where accidental or intentional discharge might do harm."

Texas lawmakers restrained university presidents' power, though, by preventing them from opting out of the law. The law prohibits presidents from setting rules "that generally prohibit or have the effect of generally prohibiting license holders from carrying concealed."

"We had to have a pretty strong justification for prohibiting guns in any particular area," Meyer said. "If we were to ban handguns from classrooms, a question could be raised: Aren't you generally prohibiting it if you can't bring it in a classroom? That provision in the law put some limitations on what reasonable rules could be."

It was easier to retain bans in some areas, he said, because they were governed by other parts of Texas or federal law, such as sporting events, day care centers, nuclear research facilities or federal facilities, like presidential libraries.

"The more difficult part was deciding about laboratories where you have high hazards or about places where there are disciplinary hearings" for students or faculty, Meyer said. "All of that was subject to a fair amount of debate and effort to get it right."

Offering flexibility to Florida's university presidents — should Florida lawmakers want to go that route — would depend on the bill the Legislature proceeds with.

It's not possible with the House version (HB 6005), filed by Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood. That deals only with campus-carry but it is strictly a repeal measure, so it cannot be amended except to strike out more aspects of state law, Plakon said.

Regardless, Plakon said, "I like this bill the way it is," and he wouldn't support the flexibility Texas gave its universities.

"I think laws should be as clear as possible," he said, adding that he'd worry "there'd be some university leadership that would go against the Legislature's intent" and try to bypass the law.

There's potential — albeit unlikely — to make changes in the Senate version of the bill (SB 140), a comprehensive proposal from Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota.

His bill would open up not only public college and university campuses to concealed weapons but also government meetings, elementary and secondary schools, airport passenger terminals and career centers. It also would let people with concealed-weapons permits openly carry guns in those and other locations where concealed weapons are allowed.

Steube didn't return a message seeking comment. He has said repeatedly he staunchly opposes "gun-free" zones because they "don't work."

Much like in Texas, Florida's opponents to campus-carry include prominent university presidents, like former lawmaker and current Florida State University president John Thrasher. But similar objections by university leaders in Texas weren't enough to prevent the law from passing there.

A "strong majority (of university presidents), not unanimous," didn't want guns allowed on their campuses, Daniel said.

"My experience in talking with the legislators who ultimately made the decision is they each had very strong personal beliefs about this issue," Daniel continued, "and while they had some level of interest in what university presidents and leaders thought, their own personal feelings about gun rights trumped what university officials felt."

Only one incident has been reported on a Texas campus since the law took effect Aug. 1. A student at Tarleton State University — a campus of about 12,000 students 90 miles southwest of Dallas — accidentally fired a gun in a residence hall in September, causing "minimal" damage and no injuries.

"If one looks at Oregon and Colorado, there have been essentially no incidents that have resulted from the implementation," Daniel said. "In that sense, you could probably say this is primarily an emotional issue, rather than a practical one of any discernible consequences based on history thus far."