Bob Sparks: Logic, passion and courage describe guns-on-campus debate

The Florida Legislature is deciding, with certain restrictions, whether to allow guns on Florida college campuses. This brief, but controversial, bill (House Bill 4005 and Senate Bill 176) removes restrictions on campus for qualified gun permit holders. Other prohibitions remain untouched, including courthouses, polling places, K-12 schools and numerous others.

Republicans generally favor the legislation while Democrats generally oppose. There are plausible arguments from both sides, but the recent campus shooting at Florida State provided some impetus to the issue.

Despite an exemplary response from local and campus law enforcement in Tallahassee, we learned one of the lucky surviving victims possesses a permit to carry, but not on campus. Those favoring firearms on campus hold the view this individual might have confronted the shooter and stopped him before he hurt anyone else.

Supporters also point to the horrific massacre at Virginia Tech University on April 16, 2007, when Seung Hui-Cho, a student, slaughtered 32 and wounded 17 unarmed individuals. James Holmes is accused of killing 12 people and injuring 70 at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater on July 20, 2012.

While the latter is not a college campus, supporters argue that mass killers go to places they know to be “gun-free zones.” An armed response at these and other locations could save lives.

Incidents such as these traditionally evoke knee-jerk responses to pass more gun control laws even if the proposed laws would have failed to prevent the tragedies.

Mentally deranged individuals or criminals pay no attention to current laws, let alone new ones.

With the Legislature seeking to allow more firearms, the opposing positions could not be more polarized. Some of the arguments against guns on campus come from law enforcement.

They understandably oppose more guns in the community. Law enforcement also fears more firearms at a chaotic scene would hinder them as they attempt to sort out the bad guys among multiple gun-toters.

We also hear the concern of professors and the faculty union who envision agitated students unhappy with a grade on a paper, project or a course taking violent action. These concerns are understandable.

Carrying the day in the Legislature is not the argument about what might happen, but taking a look at what has already happened and trying to prevent a recurrence. The thought is to either stop a potential mass murderer or make him pause to consider whether someone among his potential victims has the ability to reverse his role from shooter into shootee.

Last week, HB 4005 was reported favorably out of the Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee, 11-2. As expected, all Republican committee members voted in favor, but the news came when two of the four subcommittee Democrats joined with the Republicans.

Joining state Rep. Katie Edwards of Sunrise in supporting the bill was Ranking Member Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasalinda of Tallahassee. Rehwinkel-Vasalinda provided context to her vote by telling a highly personal story from her college days of preventing her own rape by confronting the would-be rapist with a firearm.

By voting for the bill, she expressed a sincere desire, based on experience, for young women to have the opportunity to protect themselves as she did. Bucking entrenched ideology does carry political risks, however.

“Shame on you”; “Opportunism”; “She just lost my vote”; and “Et tu, Michelle” are just some of the social media barbs tossed her way. As if any of the commentators had anything resembling a real-life experience similar to hers. All of the above comments, by the way, came from men.

In 1996, the Legislature stood poised to override a veto by Gov. Lawton Chiles on a bill preventing the state from suing the tobacco industry. In the Florida Senate it came down to one vote. Republican state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite broke ranks with her party, thereby upholding the veto.

“I can no longer support this,” she said to her stunned colleagues and the Capitol Press Corps. “I can’t sit here any longer and play the tobacco game.”

Brown-Waite was lauded as a hero for crossing party lines and voting her conscience. Rehwinkel-Vasalinda deserves the same respect.

Campuses are soft targets for terrorists or deranged mass murderers. They also contain thousands of young women in classrooms, dormitories and sororities who should have a choice on the best way to protect themselves.

If approved, Florida would join Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin as states allowing concealed carry on campus. Among the others, 23 states leave the decision to the college or university while 19 others maintain a prohibition against concealed carry.

National tragedies involving defenseless victims are well known, but reports of tragic gun violence on campuses in states permitting concealed carry do not come to mind. For those reasons and those offered by Rehwinkel-Vasalinda, Florida colleges will be safer by allowing students, faculty and administrators to defend themselves.

Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at [email protected] and Twitter @BobSparksFL.


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