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Florida legislators pass bill making it tougher to buy guns, but easier to arm school staff

Florida legislators pass bill making it tougher to buy guns, but easier to arm school staff
Students protest in the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday as legislators debated a gun control bill. (Tampa Bay Times)

Just weeks after 17 people were killed at a South Florida high school, the state's strongly Republican legislature passed a landmark bill that would make it tougher to buy guns but would also clear a path for school employees to bring firearms on campus.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act would raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, require a three-day waiting period for most gun purchases and ban the sale or possession of bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic rifles to behave like machine guns.

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The $400-million package — rushed through the last days of the legislative session after students from the Parkland high school ignited a national debate on school safety — was the first gun control legislation supported by Florida's House and Senate Republican leadership since the GOP took control of both chambers more than two decades ago.

For hours Wednesday, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agonized over whether to support the bill. It eventually passed 67-50.

Blood is crying out from the ground in South Florida and I just cannot be political.


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Leaders of the House Democratic caucus urged members to oppose the GOP-sponsored bill on the basis that it allows some school teachers and staff to carry guns on campus and does not go far enough in restricting access to assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Some Republicans opposed it, too, disagreeing with raising the minimum age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 or imposing a waiting period for gun sales. Though the age requirement in Florida is 21 to purchase handguns, the 19-year-old suspect in the school attack, Nikolas Cruz, was able to legally purchase an AR-15, the semi-automatic rifle.

Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott — who has opposed the idea of arming teachers — declined to say ahead of the House vote whether he would sign the bill.

"When the bill makes it to my desk, I'm going to take the time, I'm going to read the bill, I'm going to talk to families," he told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

Ryan Petty and Andrew Pollack, fathers of two students killed at Stoneman Douglas High School, spent days in Tallahassee pleading with legislators to pass the bill. Late Tuesday, they delivered a letter signed by the families of all 17 victims.

"You must act to prevent mass murder from ever occurring again at any school," the families urged lawmakers in the letter. "The moment to pass this bill is now. We must be the last families to suffer the loss of a loved one due to a mass shooting at a school."

Many Democrats said the "guardian" program that would let trained staff bring guns into schools was a "poison pill" that prevented them from supporting the bill. The measure allows local school districts and sheriffs to set up programs that would let staff members — not teachers who solely work in a classroom, but teachers who serve as coaches or Junior ROTC instructors, as well as other staff — volunteer to carry guns after undergoing 132 hours of firearms training and 12 hours of diversity training.

"At points, it reads like the rough first draft of a Steven Seagal movie, that somehow the cafeteria ladies are going to spring into action and save everything," said Democratic Rep. Evan Jenne, who represents part of southern Broward County.

Many black Democrats warned that the program would likely put minority students at risk and that law enforcement officials might be more likely to mistakenly identify black school staff with guns as active shooters.

Yet with Republicans outnumbering Democrats 76 to 41, critics of the bill did not manage to alter the legislation that narrowly passed Florida's Senate on Monday.

Republican Florida state Reps. Jose Oliva, Mike La Rosa, and Paul Renner listen to debate on Democrats' proposed amendments to a gun and school safety bill on Tuesday.
Republican Florida state Reps. Jose Oliva, Mike La Rosa, and Paul Renner listen to debate on Democrats' proposed amendments to a gun and school safety bill on Tuesday. (Tampa Bay Times)

Enough Democrats ended up voting for the bill — even as they acknowledged it was not perfect — for the measure to pass.

"Blood is crying out from the ground in South Florida and I just cannot be political," said Rep. Kimberly Daniels, a Democrat from Jacksonville explaining why she would break with the legislative black caucus to support the bill.

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"I'm taking and swallowing that poison pill," said Rep. Joe Geller, a Democrat who represents the Hollywood area in southern Broward County. "I believe my vote will lead to a loss of life. But I believe that if I don't vote yes, there will be a greater loss of life."

The bill, rushed through the Florida legislature before its session ends Friday, would provide additional funding for mental health services and give law enforcement officials greater power to temporarily seize weapons and ammunition from people with mental health issues or who threaten violence.

"I cannot let the perfect be the enemy of good," said Rep. Nicholas X. Duran, a Democrat who represents the Miami area. "I also see today a unique opportunity to take a metaphorical gut punch to the NRA — grab it by its shirt collar and let it know its power is waning, its influence is fleeting. And this is just round one."

"It the first of many steps," said Democratic Rep. Kristin Jacobs, whose district includes Parkland. "We understand that it isn't everything we want. We understand there are sections, in fact, that we can't stomach. But we also understand that moving forward is something we have to do together."

Tension was also high between the more moderate and pro-gun wings of the Republican Party.

"I have been called a murderer," said Rep. Thomas Leek, a Republican who supported the bill. "I have been told I'm abandoning the Constitution. I've had friends of 20 years question my motives and question our friendship."

On Tuesday, House Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to pass a flurry of amendments that would strengthen gun control provisions of the bill — to require all those who buy guns to undergo universal background checks, to ban the sale of assault weapons in the state, to require firearm owners to report stolen guns.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat who graduated from Stoneman Douglas and sponsored the amendment to eliminate the guardian program, voiced concern that the legacy of the Parkland massacre would be "we armed teachers."

Yet his amendment to eliminate the program was easily defeated Tuesday 71 to 42, with votes mostly falling along partisan lines.

On Wednesday, Moskowitz voted in favor of the bill: "Doing the right thing is not easy, but it's still the right thing."

Repeatedly, as Democrats critiqued the bill over the last two days, they stressed it did not go far enough to reflect the wishes of voters across Florida and the nation. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed that 58% of American voters oppose allowing teachers and other school officials to carry guns on school grounds. But about 82% support having armed security officers in schools.

"So what do we have before us today? A proposal that arms teachers and does not ban military-style assault weapons," Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat from Orlando, said Tuesday, summing up Democrats' frustration. "This is why people are so fed up with politics!"

When asked why he would not consider universal background checks for guns, the Republican sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jose Oliva, said Tuesday that legislators had taken pains to balance increasing demands for safety with gun owners' constitutional rights.

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"Whenever we are going to speak to the rights of people, and whenever we are going to in any way abridge those rights," Oliva said, "I think that we have to walk a fine line and be very careful."

On Tuesday, students and gun control advocates converged on the State Capitol with placards that said "NO ARMED TEACHERS" and staged a "die-in" between the House and Senate chambers.

Legislators also faced pressure from the National Rifle Assn., which sent out an email accusing House leaders of "bullying" Second Amendment supporters to vote for the bill.

"YOU and every other law-abiding gun owner is being blamed for an atrocious act of premeditated murder," the NRA stated. "Neither the 3-day waiting period on all rifles and shotguns, raising the age from 18 to 21 to buy any firearm, or the bump stock ban will have any effect on crime."

On Wednesday, several social justice organizations called on Florida's governor to veto the bill.

"Increasing funding for police in Florida schools will not lead to safer campuses and communities for students," Judith Browne-Dianis, executive director of Advancement Project's national office, said in a statement.

"It does not do justice to the students of Parkland to implement reactive and ineffective solutions to this problem. We call on Governor Rick Scott to throw this bill out."

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