Guns fired their way through headlines in 2015, sparking both widespread controversy and lengthy discussions over gun rights and gun safety in the Sunshine State.
Several legislative proposals were at the center of this year’s gun issues, causing quite the commotion in Tallahassee all year round.
Campus Carry Controversy
State lawmakers began their first push to allow guns on college campuses during the 2015 regular legislative session. Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, and Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota both threw their weight behind a proposal which would have allowed concealed carry permit holders over the age of 21 to bring their firearms onto college campuses.
The bill immediately sparked heated discussion with gun rights groups fighting for the passage of the bill and students, college professors and university police officers fighting against it.
Supporters of the legislation said it was an important measure to ensure student safety, especially for college-aged women. They also argued it was an important way for Floridians to exercise their Second Amendment rights.
Rebekah Hargrove, president of Students for Concealed Carry at Florida State University, said concealed carry permit holders are well-trained in gun safety and should be allowed to have the freedom to exercise both their constitutional rights and their own freedoms.
“This bill is about choice,” she said.
The bill sailed through the House, but had a more difficult time making its way through the Senate. The proposal was shelved from the Senate Judiciary Committee agenda, ultimately killing off the bill.
Supporters of the legislation said Senate President Andy Gardiner was the one responsible for taking the bill off the agenda, but Gardiner denied any involvement in removing the bill.
That wasn’t the end of the line for the campus carry proposal, however -- Evers and Steube have already reintroduced the proposal for the 2016 legislative session in January, when the legislature will take up the measure once more.
Burden of Proof Could Shift in Stand Your Ground
Another new legislative proposal, SB 344, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, would shift the “burden of proof” for Stand Your Ground cases, giving defendants more protection from prosecution by requiring prosecutors to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” whether a defendant is entitled to immunity at a pretrial hearing in order to disprove a claim of self-defense immunity.
Sen. Bradley introduced the bill after a recent ruling from the Florida Supreme Court this summer which said defendants would be responsible for the burden of proof showing they shouldn’t be prosecuted in Stand Your Ground cases.
Bradley’s companion legislation, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, didn’t fare as well in the House -- in November, the bill stalled out in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee when it flopped due to a 6-6 tie vote -- leaving the future of the bill dim. But despite many saying it was dead, the proposal received a second life in the Senate, where it chugged along in its respective committees and will now head to the full Senate floor for a vote.
Open Carry Comes to Florida
A proposal to allow concealed weapons permit holders to openly carry their firearms in Florida successfully made its way through the necessary committees during the tail end of 2015, and the legislation has already caused a rift between gun rights groups and police groups across the state.
The “open carry” legislation, sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, would make it legal for anyone with a concealed weapons permit to openly carry their firearm in public places.
The National Rifle Association pledged its full support behind the bill, saying it was a good way for concealed permit holders to avoid being arrested for accidentally displaying their firearms.
“Anytime you carry concealed, you are in danger of being arrested, charged, and prosecuted like a criminal for violating the ban on open carry of firearms, if your gun is accidentally, unintentionally, briefly exposed to the sight of another person,” wrote former NRA president and lobbyist Marion Hammer to members.
Not everyone was onboard with the proposed legislation, however. The Florida Sheriffs Association, which represents sheriffs nationwide, said the bill was too broad and didn’t have enough limits, adding it would make it difficult for law enforcement officers to ensure public safety.
Another law enforcement group, the Florida Police Chiefs Association, said it would back a revised version of the bill which added holstering requirements among other amendments.
If the Gaetzes' bills pass, Florida would join many other states allowing open carry in the U.S. As of Aug., 31 states across the country do not require a permit to openly carry a weapon. A higher number -- 44 states -- currently allow open carry. Few states have an outright ban on the practice — California, Florida, Illinois, New York, South Carolina and Texas all don’t allow open carry.
Roughly 1.5 million Floridians currently possess concealed carry permits.