Four years ago, John Thrasher did something incredibly brave.
As chairman of the Florida Senate’s Rules Committee and one of the state’s most powerful Republicans, he bucked his entire party and one of its most powerful lobbying partners in 2011 to kill a bill that would have let Floridians carry guns openly on school campuses, “at preschools through colleges,” as the Tampa Bay Times put it.
The GOP-dominated chamber would almost certainly have passed the NRA-approved bill, and Gov. Rick Scott almost certainly would have signed it. But Thrasher never let it leave his committee – in part because he knows the pain of loss from handling firearms carelessly.
One of his closest family friends, a Florida State University student named Ashley Cowie, died at a university frat house earlier that year after a friend had shown off his AK-47-type weapon and accidentally shot her in the chest. Thrasher, an FSU alum and longtime booster, had lobbied Cowie and her sister to attend the university where she died.
Now Thrasher is the president of FSU, and his GOP former colleagues in the Legislature are back at it: The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee has approved a new campus carry bill, and the Senate is working on its own version. Given that pro-NRA conservatives control nearly two-thirds of both houses, that bill could sail to Scott’s desk once the main legislative session opens in March.
That is, unless Thrasher repeats his act of courage. “I’m a Second Amendment person, I believe in the Second Amendment. I’ve supported gun rights,” he told reporters. “But just like in the First Amendment, there are exceptions. When it comes to guns on campus, the consequences far outweigh the positives.”
That may be true, but what is he doing to stop the campus carry plan now, besides offering that sound bite? A large part of his pitch last year to become FSU’s president rested on the clout he carried in the Capitol. A university spokesman didn’t offer me any specifics on Thrasher’s plan of attack, saying only that “his previous position has not changed and he is opposed to this legislation.”
Ironically, Thrasher’s coziness with lobbyists and pols was one reason FSU faculty members were so skeptical of his presidency. But he could put a lot of them at ease by flexing his political muscle on the gun bill. The faculty union has passed a resolution condemning the plan, saying “an increase in deadly firearms on campus will not enhance the safety of our students, faculty, or staff because of the potential increase in collateral damage, accidental shootings, and confusion regarding who the aggressor is in a given situation.”
It’s a rare moment of bipartisanship in Tallahassee, only it’s happening at FSU instead of the Capitol. Does Thrasher still have the juice in this town to face off with a conservative legislative majority and beat them at their own game? We’ll find out in March.
Adam Weinstein is a Tallahassee-based senior writer for Gawker. He has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, and Mother Jones. Column courtesy of Context Florida.