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Florida state Senate passes a Marjory Stoneman Douglas gun control act — and some call it an insult to its namesake

Florida's Senate narrowly passed a sweeping bill to increase school safety and restrict gun purchases. (Mar. 6, 2018)

Florida’s Senate on Monday narrowly passed a sweeping yet contentious bill to increase school safety and restrict gun purchases, nearly three weeks after the shooting that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Senate Bill 7026, named the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, would raise the 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 semiautomatic rifles to fire faster.

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But the bill, which passed by 20 to 18 votes and now goes to the Florida House, does not ban assault and assault-style weapons — a measure vigorously pushed by many Parkland students and parents.

It also includes a contentious $67-million voluntary “school marshal” program that would let school districts allow some staff members to carry concealed weapons on campus after undergoing 132 hours of firearms training and 12 hours of diversity training.

The bill, which is being rushed through the Legislature before its session ends on Friday, would also provide additional funding for mental health services and give law enforcement officials more power to temporarily seize weapons and ammunition from people with mental health issues or threatening violence.

With Republicans controlling the House, it has a strong chance of passage there. Although Florida Gov. Rick Scott opposes the idea of arming teachers, he has not indicated whether he would veto the bill and call lawmakers back for a special session if it passes both chambers.

Although the bill was sponsored by Republicans, some GOP senators opposed it because they disagreed with raising the minimum age to buy a rifle to 21 from 18 or imposing a waiting period for gun sales.

Many Democrats also challenged the bill on the basis that it did not go far enough in banning assault rifles, or they did not approve of staff bringing guns into schools. But with Republicans holding a firm majority – 23 of the Senate’s 40 seats – Democrats had little power to pass amendments or block it.

Ultimately, some Democrats supported it as a step forward.

“Do I think this bill goes far enough?” said Sen. Lauren Book, who represents a district including Parkland. “No! No, I don’t, but what I disagree with more is the idea of our allowing the great to be the enemy of the good and letting [the] session come to a close without some meaningful legislation.”

“My schoolchildren were murdered in their classrooms,” Book continued. “I cannot live with the choice to put party politics above an opportunity to get something done that inches us closer to the place I believe we should be as a state.”

A fellow Democrat, Sen. Gary M. Farmer, urged senators to vote against the bill because it “simply doesn’t do enough and it potentially creates more harm.”

“The mentality that we take what we can get and come back next year and fight more — sorry, I can’t do that,” he said. “I can’t vote to put more guns in schools in the hands of teachers or others. And to talk about this being first step, members, I’m sorry, I believe this will be the first and last step.”

One Democrat, Sen. José Javier Rodriguez, who represents the Miami area, suggested removing the name Stoneman Douglas from the legislation.

“If we are not doing what the survivors of Parkland are overwhelmingly asking for,” he asked, “is it appropriate to slap the name of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on the bill? I don’t think it deserves to have to have that name on it.”

After several hours of debate, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Galvano, said the bipartisan opposition indicated they had moved along the right lines to reach a middle ground.

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A slideshow in the Florida Senate chamber on Feb. 21, 2018, shows each person killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
A slideshow in the Florida Senate chamber on Feb. 21, 2018, shows each person killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (Mark Wallheiser / Associated Press)

“We’ve gotten somewhere,” he said. “I know we’re hitting nerves, we’re going into areas that may not be in our comfort zones…. When it becomes law, things will start changing.”

On Monday, the Senate amended the bill to limit the number of teachers who could volunteer to carry guns in schools. Any teacher who solely works in a classroom would not be eligible to carry guns, but some teachers, such as those who serve as coaches or Junior ROTC instructors, would be able to volunteer for the program.

The Senate also voted to name the “school marshal” program after Aaron Feis, an assistant high school football coach who was killed in the massacre.

Since the Feb. 14 shooting, scores of students, parents and teachers have traveled from Parkland to Tallahassee to meet with legislators and protest outside the state Capitol.

After debating for nearly eight hours Saturday, the Senate voted 21 to 17 against an amendment that would have added a two-year moratorium on the sale of AR-15s and a full-out ban on “assault weapons.” Senators also rejected an amendment that would have removed the school marshal program.

Some Parkland students celebrated the passing of the Senate bill as a victory.

“These are the baby steps we need!!” Delaney Tarr, a 17-year-old senior at Douglas Stoneman, wrote on Twitter on Monday night. “We have a lot further to go, but progress is progress and that’s not to be denied.”

Others, who believed the bill did not go far enough, emphasized that lawmakers were out of step with voters.

“Florida is not disheartened by the pathetic choices made by our lawmakers,” Cameron Kasky, 17, a junior at Stoneman Douglas and co-founder of the student-led gun control advocacy group Never Again MSD, posted on Twitter after Saturday’s Senate debate.

“We’re simply excited to kick them out and save our own lives. We have more hope now than ever. We have a very clear understanding of who’s with us and who’s against us.”

Last week, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 62% of Florida voters support a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that fire more than 10 rounds. About 56% oppose allowing teachers and school officials to carry guns on school grounds.

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