Florida Court Refuses to Allow University to Bar Guns from Student Vehicles

December 20, 2013

By: John Gaal

In the same week that we acknowledged the first anniversary of Sandy Hook, and read about yet another school shooting, in Colorado, the Florida District Court of Appeals, in a 12-3 decision, has ruled that the University of North Florida does not have the right to prohibit its students from carrying encased firearms in their vehicles even while on campus property.  While this decision has received a fair amount of attention, and it may be a significant ruling for other institutions within Florida, it should not have much bearing on institutional conduct in most other states.  The legal issue in this case was actually fairly narrow.  Florida law provides that firearms may not be possessed on school property except when securely encased in a vehicle.  The rule adopted by the University of North Florida prohibited firearms, even when encased, in a vehicle while on University property.  The issue was whether Florida law recognized a right in the University to effectively make an exception to that Florida law.  Ultimately, the Court concluded that the University did not have that right – that the Florida Legislature had preempted the field of firearm regulation and the University had no authority to act in the manner it did. The Court reached this decision notwithstanding the fact that another Florida statute arguably provided the University with authority to more generally restrict the use of firearms on campus.  Indeed, the Court acknowledged that “[i]f the issue in this case involved the right of a student to carry a firearm in the classroom or at a sporting event, our analysis would be different.”  But here the Court found that in the face of an explicit statutory provision permitting firearms to be maintained in vehicles, the University simply had no authority to provide differently.  This decision is the result of the unique nature of the Florida law.  Florida’s state constitution expressly recognizes the right to bear arms:   

The right of the people to keep and bear arms in defense of themselves and of the lawful authority of the state shall not be infringed, except that the manner of bearing arms may be regulated by law.   

In fact, Florida’s recognition of the right to bear arms is so strong, that its Legislature had previously passed the following statutory protection: 

This act is intended to codify the long-standing legislative policy of the state that individual citizens have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms, that they have a constitutional right to possess and keep legally owned firearms within their motor vehicles for self-defense and other lawful purposes, and that these rights are not abrogated by virtue of a citizen becoming a customer, employee, or invitee of a business entity. It is the finding of the Legislature that a citizen's lawful possession, transportation, and secure keeping of firearms and ammunition within his or her motor vehicle is essential to the exercise of the fundamental constitutional right to keep and bear arms and the constitutional right of self-defense. The Legislature finds that protecting and preserving these rights is essential to the exercise of freedom and individual responsibility. The Legislature further finds that no citizen can or should be required to waive or abrogate his or her right to possess and securely keep firearms and ammunition locked within his or her motor vehicle by virtue of becoming a customer, employee, or invitee of any employer or business establishment within the state, unless specifically required by state or federal law. 

So while this recent decision is worthy of note, it is not likely to have any impact on the scope of permissible college and university regulations outside of Florida and other states that have adopted similar legislation.