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Controversial gun bills advance in Senate

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Tuesday saw a rapid-fire morning for gun legislation in Tallahassee, with pro-Second Amendment groups getting the better of the shoot-out.

A pair of bills to expand where and how Floridians can carry firearms — on college campuses and without concealment, respectively — advanced in Senate committees, as did one that strengthens the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law meant to protect the rights of people using deadly force in self-defense.

The so-called “campus carry” bill — SB 68 by state Sen. Greg Evers — was approved by the Senate Higher Education Committee by a 5-3 party line vote.

Almost simultaneously, Evers chaired the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which passed state Sen. Don Gaetz‘s bill to allow concealed weapons permit holders to carry their weapons openly — by a similar 3-2 vote, with Democrats representing urban districts casting votes in opposition.

Both hearings saw dozens of witnesses weighing in on the bills, with passions flaring both in favor and against the expansion of gun rights during debate.

Shaina Lopez-Rivas, a student at Florida State University, told the panel she believes Evers’ bill could have prevented her on-campus rape.

She told the committee the harrowing story of her sexual abuse one night at FSU, which left her lacerated and dazed. As she pieced together the incident over the intervening months, she came to the conclusion a firearm would have kept her safe.

“I can confidently say that if I had a gun I would not have been raped,” she testified.

Meanwhile, opponents of the proposal cited the recent deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College in Orgeon — one of eight states that allow concealed carrying of a gun on campus, according to FSU student and activist Stephen Barnes –– as an antidote to her line of reasoning.

“The ‘good guy with a gun’ narrative that is being pushed by advocates of this bill is false,” Barnes told senators. “There are very few instances of anyone using their gun in a mass shooting-type situation having a good outcome.”

Barnes said that since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 there have been 74 shootings on campuses, and that lawmakers should focus their efforts on preventing such incidents, rather than arming potential victims of them.

“I didn’t hear the sponsor say either the purpose or the consequence of this bill was to prevent mass shootings,” said former Senate President Don Gaetz, who sits on the committee. “What would you say to individuals like the previous speaker who spoke eloquently and with experience about her desire to protect herself, staying away from mass shootings, which was never brought up by the sponsor?”

Barnes responded that the use of non-lethal weapons like tasers and mace were effective in preventing sexual assaults.

“So you’d be in favor of weapons, just not weapons that have bullets?” was Gaetz’s retort.

After nearly two hours of debate, including from academics, business groups, and pro-gun students from FSU and the University of Florida, the bill passed with Democratic state Sens. Arthenia JoynerOscar Braynon, and Maria Sachs voting “No.”

Shortly after the exchange, Gaetz left Senate Higher Ed to present his open-carry bill — SB 300 — before the Criminal Justice Committee, a bill to make Florida the 45th state in the nation to allow residents to carry weapons anywhere not currently prohibited by law.

Fireworks also flew in that committee. Most notably, the Fraternal Order of Police, a leading police union, publicly unveiled its opposition to the legislation, while the Florida Retail Federation and Florida Chamber of Commerce continued to express reservations, but seemed open to working with Gaetz on tweaking the measure.

SB 300 passed 3-2 with state Sen. Jeff Clemens and Audrey Gibson casting dissenting votes.

The bill moves on to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the same committee where “campus carry” died in 2015.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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