TALLAHASSEE, FL (THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA) -- People with concealed-weapons licenses would be able to openly display handguns in Florida and would be able to carry firearms on state college and university campuses, under measures approved by separate Senate committees Tuesday.
One of the committees also supported a measure that might make it easier for people to claim they have stood their ground in self-defense when shooting others.
The three proposals, which still have additional committees to clear in both the House and Senate, are advancing because "there is a need," said Sen. Greg Evers, a Baker Republican whose campus-carry proposal (SB 68) was backed 5-3 along party lines by the Senate Higher Education Committee.
"The reason you've got those three or four guns bills is because of issues that's happened over the past several years," Evers said after the meetings. "There's a glitch for each one of those bills that really needs to be passed in order to give folks the ability to exercise their 2nd Amendment (right) and not be prosecuted for being a licensed-carry holder."
Evers also chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which voted Tuesday to support allowing Floridians with concealed-weapons licenses to openly carry firearms (SB 300) and to shift the burden of proof to the state in cases involving Florida's "stand your ground" law (SB 344).
The "stand your ground" law says people can use deadly force and do not have a duty to retreat if they think it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.
Each of the bills drew emotional testimony from people on both sides of the issues.
Florida State University student Shayna Lopez-Rivas told the Higher Education Committee of being sexually assaulted on campus two years ago and pointedly noted that "if I had a gun I wouldn't have been raped."
Lucia McBath, whose 17-year-old son Jordan Davis was shot to death while listening to music in a car at a Jacksonville gas station last year, implored the Criminal Justice Committee to reject what she called a "dangerous" expansion of the "stand your ground" measure that "would make it even harder to protect communities from gun violence."
"Stand your ground laws create a culture of shoot first and ask questions later," McBath said. "These laws embolden individuals to settle their conflicts by reaching for their firearms instead of using their words. And that is not what Florida needs. It needs common-sense gun laws."
While the Florida Sheriffs Association hasn't taken a position, Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith gave his support to the measure that would allow people to openly carry guns. That measure is sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
"I believe in the right of a person to protect themselves and their family the way they best feel comfortable," Smith said. "Some people don't like guns. I'm OK with that. Get a can of wasp spray if it works for you."
Others in law enforcement offered a differing view.
"Unfortunately, some people want to be police officers like George Zimmerman did," said Javier Ortiz president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police. "We don't need George Zimmermans walking around with firearms exposed. There are a lot of law-abiding citizens out there, but unfortunately, there are some people that shouldn't have firearms. You are tying the hands of law enforcement, and you are putting our communities at stake."
Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford when he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. Zimmerman, later acquitted in Martin's death, said he shot the teen in self-defense but did not ask for the "stand your ground" legal immunity.
Approval of the three bills came a day after the release of a University of South Florida-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey that indicated 48 percent of Floridians believe the state's gun laws aren't restrictive enough, with another 42 percent considering the existing rules "about right."
Of the remaining people surveyed, 7 percent consider Florida "too restrictive" and the other 3 percent provided no opinion during the survey, which was conducted from July 30 to Aug. 16.
Numbers released earlier from the survey showed almost three-quarters of Floridians --- 73 percent --- oppose allowing students with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on campus.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said she wasn't sure why lawmakers weren't giving more credence to such polling.
"I don't see the folks who come up or send me thousands of emails that are supportive of the gun legislation, they never address how we can reduce gun violence or how any of these bills reduce gun violence," Jackson said. "None of them do."
The measure that may shift the burden of proof to the state in cases involving the "stand your ground" law was filed after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that people who use the controversial defense have the burden of showing they should be shielded from prosecution. In such cases, pre-trial evidentiary hearings are held to determine whether defendants are immune from prosecution under the law. The measure instead would place the burden of proof on prosecutors in the evidentiary hearings and would apply retroactively to pending cases.
Bill sponsor Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said he doesn't see the proposal as expanding "stand your ground."
"It's simply incorrect to suggest that the bill would result in otherwise guilty individuals going free," Bradley said. "If the state has sufficient evidence to successfully prosecute a defendant at a jury trial, the state will prevail in the immunity hearing before the judge and the judge will permit the case to go to trial."
News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report