The sponsor of a bill that would allow concealed weapons on Florida’s college campuses said his legislation would help prevent mass shootings like the attack at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College, which he described as a gun-free zone.
Whether the school was a gun-free zone or not emerged as a point of contention at a Nov. 19 House Judiciary Committee hearing on HB 4001. Its sponsor, state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, disagreed with testimony against the bill from Austin Engelbrecht, a lobbyist for Florida State University.
Engelbrecht said Oregon law allows students to bring guns on campuses, but it was still the police, not a gun owner, who stopped the Umpqua attack. Steube responded that guns were not allowed at Oregon schools.
"Oregon is a gun-free zone. The state of Oregon allows each university the ability to decide for themselves whether it's a gun-free zone or not," Steube said. "The community college where the shooting occurred was a gun-free zone. Don't believe me, look it up on your cell phones."
We decided to figure out whether Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., allowed guns on its campus or not.
Exception to the rule
Christopher Harper-Mercer, a 26-year-old enrolled at Umpqua, killed eight students and an assistant professor and injured nine others before police arrived and wounded him in a shootout on Oct. 1, 2015. Harper-Mercer then killed himself, ending the deadliest mass shooting in Oregon’s modern history.
Some gun rights advocates said the shooting could have been prevented if campuses weren’t gun-free zones — that is, the schools restrict students, teachers or anyone else from having a gun on school property. Steube used the shooting as an example of why HB 4001 is necessary, citing an Umpqua policy that bars guns from campus and therefore exposed students to danger.
The school’s student code of conduct lists the "possession or use, without written authorization, of firearms," among other weapons and dangerous chemicals or devices, on college property or at college-sponsored events as a punishable offense. There’s a similar policy spelled out on Umpqua’s website.
The clause "without written authorization" is important.
There is a policy prohibiting guns at Umpqua Community College, as Steube said. But students are allowed to have guns on campus if they have a concealed carry permit — essentially what Steube’s HB 4001 wants to codify in Florida.
His bill, which cleared the committee process to be heard in the 2016 legislative session, would apply to all colleges and universities, which would not be able to restrict concealed carry permit holders from carrying guns.
While the Oregon University System banned guns in the 1970s, a concealed weapons law from 1989 said only the state’s Legislature can make rules on gun possession. The law was at the center of a challenge by a Western Oregon University student who was suspended in 2009 for bringing a concealed handgun on campus. The student had a permit for the gun.
The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in 2011 that the university system’s ban was beyond its authority and was invalid, so concealed carry permit holders could bring weapons on campus. (Having the gun out in the open was still not allowed.) Oregon is currently one of eight states that allow students to carry concealed handguns on postsecondary campuses — the others are Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Utah, Wisconsin and Texas, which recently passed a bill that takes effect in August 2016.
Legally speaking, community colleges can neither arm their own security guards nor remove people with guns from campus. On Nov. 9, Umpqua began paying for an armed sheriff’s deputy to act as armed security, because the school couldn’t directly hire an armed guard.
Steube acknowledged the 2011 Oregon court ruling to PolitiFact Florida, but he said schools are now allowed to set their own policies prohibiting weapons.
"I stated in committee that state law allows (concealed) carry in Oregon but the school banned guns," Steube told PolitiFact Florida via email. "My statement was an accurate reflection of the law and policy."
The State Board of Higher Education in 2012 did create a policy that banned students, employees, contractors, ticketholders to university events and people renting university property from carrying guns on university property, according to The Oregonian newspaper. If someone had a concealed carry permit, they could bring the gun on campus, but he or she could not take it into a building or sports venue. There were exceptions for police, ROTC members, people in off-campus housing, and shooting and hunting clubs.
But keep in mind, that policy was for the state’s seven universities, not its 17 community colleges. Their governing boards each set their own rules. Umpqua’s ban on guns doesn’t prevent students with a valid concealed weapons permit from bringing guns on campus.
Umpqua Community College spokeswoman Anne Marie Levis told us the school’s gun-free policy didn’t apply to students with a valid permit.
"UCC was never designated as a ‘gun-free zone’ by any signage or policy," she said. "Umpqua Community College does comply with state law by allowing students with concealed carry licenses to bring firearms on campus."
It has been widely reported that students with firearms were on the Umpqua campus on the day Harper-Mercer attacked. One particularly harrowing account included the experience of student John Parker, an Army veteran who was carrying a concealed handgun on Oct. 1.
"When I got into the room that was locked down, one of the professors asked if anyone was concealed carry," Parker told Reuters. "I raised my hand and said: ‘Don’t worry, nobody is coming through that door.’ "
Parker was in a building away from the shooting. He told MSNBC that a professor convinced him to stay put lest he be targeted by the shooter or mistaken for the suspect by police responding to 911 calls.
Steube said Oregon’s Umpqua Community College "was a gun-free zone."
The school does have a policy generally prohibiting firearms on campus. However, Oregon law allows for students with valid concealed carry permits to bring guns on school grounds with some restrictions.
An Umpqua official confirmed that students with concealed carry licenses are allowed to bring them on campus in compliance with state law, just as Steube wants to see in Florida.
Steube’s statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.