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Gun bills move forward in early committee action

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In its first committee meeting in advance of the 2016 Legislative Session, a Senate committee pulled the trigger on two bills to alter Florida’s state gun statutes on Wednesday.

First up was SB 130 sponsored by state Sen. Garrett Richter, essentially this year’s version of Democratic state Rep. Darryl Rouson‘s bill from last year to prevent residents of densely populated neighborhoods from discharging their guns at homemade gun ranges.

The bill faced some opposition from gun rights groups last year but National Rifle Association past president and Capitol stalwart Marion Hammer said outstanding issues have been worked out.

After state Sen. Jeff Brandes raised concerns about the possible criminalization of accidental discharges under the measure, Hammer assured committee members the bill’s exceptions for celebratory discharges and non-intentional firing precluded such problems.

“Police chiefs worked on this issue… it deals only with recreational shooting in dense residential neighborhoods. Intentional discharges are not covered by the bill. It has nothing to do with accidents,” said Hammer.

“Frequently we all overthink some things — this was intended to give law enforcement some clarity that they asked for. NRA is happy to join the police chiefs in supporting this legislation.”

While it may not stop some homeowners from constructing “trashy” makeshift gun ranges, said Hammer — “that’s up to the homeowner’s association” — the bill will enable law enforcement to intervene if shots are discharged.

State Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville said there was “tidying up” that needs to be done so the new law isn’t enforced in some neighborhoods and not others. She ultimately gave her support along with fellow Democratic state Sen. Jeff Clemens.

The bill passed unanimously.

More controversial was committee chairman state Sen. Greg Evers‘ SB 68, the so-called “campus carry” bill that would eliminate the current prohibition on concealed carry permit holders carrying their weapons into colleges and university facilities.

Opposition from gun control quarters and urban Democrats is expected to be stiff.

Clemens asked of the bill’s sponsor simply, “Why would we want to do that?”

“I don’t believe our constitutional rights should stop at a line in the sand,” was Evers reply.

Evers’ line of reasoning was bolstered by testimony from Professor Gary Kleck of the Florida State University College of Criminology.

Only a very small number of people with concealed carry permits ever commit violent crime, Kleck told panelists, a number smaller than the general population

Concealed weapons permit holders are “an extraordinarily law-abiding subset of people,” said Kleck, author of Point Blank and Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control, citing studies that suggested that between 1987 and 2011, just seven per year committed a violent gun crime out of more than 850,000 Florida permits issued during that period.

“Defensive gun use is virtually never followed by injury. It is both frequent and effective, and it isn’t likely to be any less so just because they are on a college campus,” Kleck testified.

The criminologist said it a “low-scale debate” given the relative safety of college campuses but the appearance cards indicated that wasn’t so.

Of speakers waiving their testimony, the count was 10 opposed to two in favor, unusually high totals for an early-stage committee hearing.

A University of Central Florida student and former Marine argued against the bill as did Tallahassee Community College President Jim Murdaugh, who said all 28 of Florida’s state colleges (formerly known as community colleges) are opposed to changes in the existing statute.

“No credible evidence to suggest that students carrying concealed weapons would decrease crime on campus,” said Murdaugh, who also raised concerns about accidental discharge and increased suicide rates when more weapons are present in a given environment.

Proponents argued that an inordinate amount of gun crime has happened in gun-free zones like colleges.

“The plain truth is campuses are supposed to be gun-free zones. But the bad guys have guns and the good guys can’t protect themselves,” said Marion Hammer. “This bill is about restoring the right of self-defense on campus, but only for adults 21 years or older who have a license to carry. They are the safest element of our society.”

The bill passed with Democrats Clemens and Gibson casting “No” votes.

SB 68 moves on to the Senate Higher Education committee. The bill died last year in Judiciary, where state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said the bill did not have the votes necessary to advance.

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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