In the latest battle over gun control in Florida, the Florida First District Court of Appeal recently rejected a challenge against the University of Florida's regulations on firearms. The case, Florida Carry, Inc. v. University of Florida, held that the University of Florida could enforce its campus-wide ban on firearms in college housing. While the plaintiff alleged both Second Amendment and state law claims, the case as a whole turned on whether on-campus housing should be considered a home or part of the school under state and federal law.
While the Second Amendment generally comes to mind when people think about gun rights, the court's opinion, written by Judge Lewis, spent very little time discussing constitutional issues. Rather, the court primarily focused on the plaintiff's preemption argument. Preemption occurs when a higher level of government passes a law that restricts a lower level of government from passing other laws in that area. For example, federal law preempts state laws in the area of immigration, which is why immigration laws are virtually always federal. In this case, the preemption issue dealt with the relationship between the state and local governments.
Article I, Section 8(a) of the Florida Constitution states that only the Florida legislature can enact laws restricting the right to bear arms and section 790.33 of the Florida Statutes says that only the state can regulate firearms. These provisions, together, preempt most local regulations on firearms. The plaintiffs argued that because the University of Florida is a local unit of government, the university cannot make rules that are stricter than those passed by the legislature. They also argued that section 790.25(3)(n) governed the issue since it stated that it is lawful for a person to possess firearms in their home or place of business. However, the court disagreed with the plaintiffs' reading of Florida law. Instead, it found that the case was controlled by another section of the Florida statutes, which prohibits possessing any firearm on school property. The court reasoned that because the statute banning guns on school property was passed after the statute allowing possession of firearms in the home, the Florida legislature likely did not intend to create an exception for guns in college dorm rooms.
However, even if Florida law says that guns should be kept out of college dorms, states cannot restrict rights beyond what the Second Amendment allows. Judge Lewis dispensed with the constitutional arguments rather easily by quoting from a portion of the Supreme Court opinion that first announced the individual right to bear arms, District of Columbia v. Heller, stating that the right does not necessarily apply to "laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools or government buildings."
Another member of the three judge panel, Judge Makar, wrote a concurring opinion painting the issue in slightly more complicated terms. He stated whether college housing was considered a school or a home under the Second Amendment might differ depending on whether the court was talking about marital housing on campus that resembles a traditional house, a temporary dormitory packed with four other students, or something in between. However, because the plaintiffs had not shown enough facts about the exact housing situation they faced, he could not determine whether there was a constitutional violation.
While the First District Court of Appeal appears to have shut the door on bringing a state law claim to challenge gun bans in dorms, the court has left open the possibility for a future challenge by those who live in college housing that more closely resembles a home. Nevertheless, the Florida Carry Inc. decision shows that controversies over gun rights are still being fought at every level of government.