By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Students attending public universities in Florida can keep weapons in their cars while on campus, a state appeals court has ruled.
The ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeals came in a case brought by a University of North Florida (UNF) student who challenged the school's policy barring firearms because she wanted to store a gun in her car for self-defense.
In a 12-3 ruling on Tuesday, the appeals court said the Florida Legislature ultimately holds the power to regulate guns, trumping local governments and universities. For decades, the Legislature has spurned tighter gun control.
Under Florida state law, guns are banned on university property but an exception allows them to be kept in cars.
"If 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," said the ruling, written by Judge Clay Roberts.
"There are certain places where firearms can be legally prohibited, but the Legislature has recognized that a citizen who is going to be in one of these places should be able to keep a firearm securely encased within his or her vehicle," he wrote.
The case arose when Alexandria Lainez, a member of Florida Carry Inc., a gun rights group, sought a court order to allow her to keep a pistol locked in her vehicle during classes at the University of North Florida.
A circuit court denied her request. Lainez and Florida Carry appealed the ruling.
The university argued it should have authority to ban weapons on campus, just as county school boards can prevent otherwise legal carrying of guns in elementary, middle and high schools.
State law allows school districts to keep guns out of public schools, but the appeals court ruled that universities are not a type of school district.
"The Legislature has pre-empted UNF from independently regulating firearms," said the ruling, which drew a patchwork of five concurring opinions, with several judges agreeing with different parts of the majority decision.
Justice Phil Padavano wrote a terse dissent, saying universities have authority over students unlike the rules that apply to the public at large.
"No one would doubt that a university has the power to prohibit a student from smoking in a dormitory or drinking an alcoholic beverage on campus, even though smoking and drinking may be perfectly lawful in other circumstances," Padavano wrote.
The legal issue of "pre-empting" all gun-control authority to the decidedly pro-gun state Legislature is expected to be taken up in the 2014 legislative session.
A former National Rifle Association president said on Wednesday there appears little chance of allowing any local governments or state agencies to regulate weapons access.
"Most of these students are adults, over 18, and the universities have no such authority over them," Marion Hammer, the long-time lobbyist for Unified Sportsmen of Florida, argued.
Democrats have introduced two bills in the House and Senate to restore legal authority to cities and counties to adopt gun regulation, but neither has been set for a committee hearing.
"I think the Legislature understands that part of its duty to uphold the Constitution includes defending the Second Amendment," Hammer said.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Leslie Adler)