By Denise-Marie Ordway
Public universities in Florida have started allowing students to keep guns in parked vehicles after a Florida court ruled last month that it is unlawful to prohibit it.
And now the gun-rights group that won that case is trying to force Florida's unofficial flagship university _ the University of Florida _ to allow firearms in dorm rooms and student apartments.
On. Dec. 10, an appeals court struck down a policy at University of North Florida that barred the storage of weapons in cars. Florida Carry Inc. had filed a lawsuit on behalf of student Alexandria Lainez, a single mother who wanted to keep a weapon in her car for self-defense while commuting for school.
In response to the court ruling, UNF and several other public universities, including Florida State University and University of South Florida, are now allowing students, employees and campus visitors to keep guns in parked vehicles. Guns are still prohibited from classroom buildings, cafeterias and other areas.
The University of Central Florida, Florida's largest public university, is in the process of updating its policy to allow the same thing, a university spokesman said. Trustees at Florida Gulf Coast University will discuss the issue on Jan. 21.
While UF changed its policy last week, Sean Caranna, executive director of Florida Carry, said the school did not go far enough to comply with state law.
On Friday, the group filed a lawsuit against UF to force compliance, with an important addition. The lawsuit also takes on UF over a separate but related gun-rights issue _ the possession of firearms in university-controlled housing.
Caranna said university housing rules deprive students, employees and the family members who live with them the right to keep guns for personal protection. He argued that the constitutional right to bear arms is most acute in a person's home.
UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes released a statement saying that "we believe we are in full compliance with that law requiring universities to allow individuals 18 years or older to store their guns securely in their cars on campus."
She also said university officials were surprised to learn of Florida Carry's new lawsuit.
"They didn't object to the steps we have taken to comply with the court's decision, and they never raised the issue of guns in the home, which was not the subject of the court's decision," Sikes said.
Some people oppose universities allowing guns on campus. Among them is Sylvia Fox, whose daughter lived in the apartment building at UCF where a former student shot himself last year. Police say they disrupted what they think was a planned campus massacre.
Fox was shocked to learn that UCF is allowing guns in parked cars. She said she called her daughter, Erika, now a sophomore at UCF living off campus, to share the news.
"She hates the thought," said Fox, of Winter Haven, Fla. "She wants no guns anywhere near her. She still has some very strong feelings about that."
Carlo Fassi, a UNF student from Weston, Fla., worries that allowing guns in cars will make it easier for someone to do harm on campus. For the same reason, Fassi, also chairman of the Florida Student Association, thinks guns should stay out of student housing facilities.
"Personally, I don't think there is any place for guns on campus unless it's in the hands of law enforcement," he said. "Just the thought of someone getting upset and having a gun in their parked car is scary."
Florida Carry has been in contact with all of the state's 12 public universities and is checking with its 28 community colleges as well.
Officials at Valencia College and Seminole State College said they are reviewing their policies now to make sure they are following the law.
Lt. Chris Daniel of the USF Police Department said USF has not publicized its policy change because of worries about thieves coming to campus looking for firearms in cars.
Daniel stressed the importance of students storing their hand guns securely and also locking their vehicles while they are in class. "We don't want to give that side of the community the idea to come out here and start taking opportunities," Daniel said.
(c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel