Campus carry was reintroduced at the start of the legislative session this fall—Florida Students for Concealed Carry, one of the measure’s chief proponents, tirelessly lobbied lawmakers on behalf of the bill—along with legislation allowing open carry, which lawmakers had also previously debated. Despite its history, Florida remains only one of five states where the open carry remains illegal.
Supporters framed the bills as public safety measures. In August, on an NRA news program, Hammer said that a “gun-free zone campus” is “a sanctuary where criminals can rape and commit mass murder without out fear of resistance.” On the website Florida Open Carry, which extols potential virtues of publicly displayed sidearms, a writer explains, “When I’m carrying concealed I feel like my ‘teeth’ are hidden, and thus of no real deterrent value.”
Diaz de la Portilla rejected those arguments with the same logic, concluding that, “In either case, the dangers outweigh any perceived benefits.”
When dealing with campus carry, he took meetings with university presidents, college police chiefs, faculty members, and students from around the state. All of them voiced their opposition to the bill. But the measure’s most influential opponent was perhaps John Thrasher, president of Florida State University.
For Thrasher, the issue was personal. Before taking a position at FSU, he was a Republican state senator who had opposed a campus-carry measure in 2011. That same year, while he was serving as the Chair of the Rules Committee, an FSU student named Ashley Cowie was accidentally shot and killed in a fraternity house. Cowie was the daugher of one of Thrasher’s close friends, and he had recruited her to come to the school.
“That story really resonated with me,” Diaz de la Portilla says.
The open carry bill, meanwhile, was opposed by law enforcement officials from around the state. They told him that, with the passage of open carry, their jobs would be exponentially more difficult. Business leaders, for their part, worried about the impact it might have on tourism.
“Do you really think it’s a good idea to allow people to openly carry handguns in crime-ridden neighborhoods?” he asks, paraphrasing the concerns. “It makes it pretty hard for cops to pick out good guys from bad guys. And what impression are you creating for visitors? Do you want tourists thinking this is the O.K. Corral?”
It’s not clear whether the bills would have passed had Diaz de la Portilla allowed them to come up for vote, but there are 26 Republicans and 14 Democrats in the Senate, and approval for either measure would have required only a simple majority.
“Gun bills almost always pass,” says Gelber, the former Democratic Senate leader.
Diaz de la Portilla is up for re-election this year. If he loses to a Democratic challenger, that might clear the way for both bills to finally become law, since no one will be there to block it from heading to the floor for a vote. And if he wins, he may still lose his chair. During the 2017 session there will be a new Senate President, a Republican named Joe Negron. He can appoint someone else to lead the committee, which could remove the last line of defense between the two bills and a vote. Either possibility raises serious concerns for the opposition.