The Florida Legislature is moving toward allowing guns on college campuses. House and Senate panels have voted in favor of a proposal that would let concealed weapon license holders -- who must be 21 -- have their guns in college facilities.
Currently, Florida is one of 20 states that specifically ban firearms on campuses; seven others specifically allow them under state law. The rest leave the decision up to the university.
The Legislature had previously rejected allowing guns on campuses, but a shooting last year reignited the debate. Gunman Myron May, a former Florida State University student, wounded two students and a library employee before he was killed by police on Nov. 20, 2014.
During a Senate Higher Education Committee hearing on March 16, 2015, students testified both for and against the proposal.
"According to the state of Florida, you are almost twice as likely to be attacked by an alligator than by someone who happens to carry a conceal-and-carry permit, and that was a study over the first 10 years of the conceal-carry law in Florida," said Erek Culbreath, president of Florida Students for Concealed Carry, a group that advocates for concealed carry of firearms on all the campuses.
Are gator attacks twice as common as attacks by someone who has a conceal-and-carry permit? We went in search of the evidence.
Data on gators and guns
Florida’s concealed weapon permit program started in 1987. Currently, about 1.3 million people have Florida concealed weapon licenses. (By coincidence, the number of estimated wild alligators in Florida is also 1.3 million.)
We found no study that compared gator attacks with any sort of "attack" by gun license owners. What Culbreath sent us -- and what we found elsewhere -- was that over the years, pro-gun advocates obtained separate data from state officials on gator attacks and gun license revocations and combined them to make such a comparison. In fact, this claim even made its way to the Connecticut General Assembly when politicians there considered a handgun safety bill in 1998.
For example, one website wrote it this way in 1999: "Do firearms carry laws result in chaos? No. Consider the case of Florida. A citizen in the Sunshine State is almost twice as likely to be attacked by an alligator than to be assaulted by a concealed carry holder. During the first ten years that the Florida law was in effect, alligator attacks outpaced the number of crimes committed by carry holders by a 146 to 88 margin." (The footnotes stated that the information came from a Fish and Wildlife Conservation spokesman and a statistical report about gun licenses.)
We obtained some updated data from state officials.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has documented the number of alligator bites on people between 1948 and November 2013 for a total of 357 bites. (For the record, that is strictly bites by alligators and not crocodiles, which are rare.)
During the hearing, Culbreath mentioned data from the first 10 years of concealed carry in Florida. We found no comprehensive source of data for "attacks" by gun license holders. However, the state does have data on revocations for misuse of a firearm.
Between October 1987 and February 2015, the state revoked 9,636 concealed weapon or firearm license permits, according to data maintained by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which handles gun permits. Of that group, 168 were revoked for misuse of a firearm. (In January 2011 the state stopped maintaining information about the breakdown of license revocations by type.) We were unable to obtain more details about whether those 168 assaulted someone or misused the gun in some other way. We also couldn’t isolate data just for 1987 through 1997 to provide a decade comparison to the alligator bites.
But overall, alligator bites happen more often than the revocation of gun permits for misuse of firearms.
Is it a meaningful comparison?
Experts didn’t think it should carry much weight in the policymaking process.
"As for comparing bites to bullets, it is more than silly," said James Alan Fox, criminology professor at Northeastern University. "The risk of attack by an armed person exists virtually anywhere one travels. Gators only attack near certain bodies of water. At the University of Florida, for example, the only gator you’ll see is the mascot at sporting events." (After our fact-check posted we heard from a couple of readers who noted that there are indeed actual live alligators on the University of Florida campus. "We do indeed have real alligators on campus," university spokesman Steve Orlando said. "There are several in Lake Alice on the west side of campus, though I couldn’t give you an exact number. We have no record of any alligator attacks.")
UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, an expert on the Second Amendment, had this to say about our query: "Are you serious? I'd rather not be attacked by an alligator or a concealed carry permit holder. The data on permit revocations suggest that concealed carry permits are revoked far more often than alligator attacks. Alligators are also subject to stricter controls than concealed carry permit holders: You can't bring an alligator to the mall when you go shopping."
David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and author of the book Private Guns, Public Health, said that revocations don’t capture every misuse of a gun by a permit holder.
"It would be like looking at the small number of driving licenses that are revoked and claiming that is a good measure of how well people are driving," he said.
Florida State University Professor Gary Kleck said that the comparison to gator attacks was likely used to indicate how rare gun crimes by carry permit holders are. "It could just as easily been something else that's really rare, like death from meteor strikes or midair aircraft collisions. The point is merely that these things are extremely rare," he said.
Culbreath said, "According to the state of Florida, you are almost twice as likely to get attacked by an alligator than by someone with a conceal-and-carry permit."
We don't have data on attacks committed by people with conceal-and-carry permits. The gun data is based on an approximation using permit revocations that may or may not accurately reflect the number of "attacks." Also, the data is 10 years old.
That said, these statistics, imperfect as they are, do support the notion that both kinds of attacks are uncommon. Whether this is a valid argument in favor of the bill is in the eye of the beholder. We find the statement has an element of truth but ignores other information that would give a different impression. So we rate it Mostly False.