Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a sweeping $400-million school safety bill on Friday, enacting significant gun control measures in the state for the first time since the GOP took control of the Legislature more than two decades ago.
But the staunch Republican and longtime National Rifle Assn. member did not use his line-item veto authority to remove funding for what many consider the most contentious part of the legislation — a program that allows school employees to bring firearms on campus.
Though Scott has repeatedly opposed the idea of arming teachers since 17 students and instructors were killed last month in a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., he announced Friday after meeting with the victims' families that he would approve the bill in its entirety.
Standing in front of grieving families who had traveled to Tallahassee from Parkland, Scott thanked two of the parents, Ryan Petty and Andrew Pollack, for walking the Capitol halls and "fighting to get this bill across the finish line."
Scott, who is considering a bid for U.S. Senate, commended Florida legislators for rushing the bill to his desk three weeks after the Feb. 14 shooting.
"I want to point out that this is a far different way of operating from the typical inefficiency we see from the federal government in Washington," he said. "Today should serve as an example to the entire country that government can and must move fast."
He also acknowledged Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students.
"You made your voices heard," he said. "You didn't let up and you fought until there was change. You helped change our state. You made a difference. You should be proud."
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act raises the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, imposes a three-day waiting period for most gun purchases and bans the sale or possession of "bump stocks," which allow semiautomatic rifles to mimic machine guns.
The NRA almost immediately filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of banning people under the age of 21 from buying firearms.
Under Florida law, Scott could have used his line-item veto authority to reject the funding for a $67 million "guardian" program that would allow some teachers to volunteer to carry guns after undergoing 132 hours of firearms and 12 hours of diversity training.
Earlier this week, Florida senators tweaked the bill in an attempt to make it more appealing to Scott, altering the guardian program to exclude those who "exclusively perform classroom duties as classroom teachers."
The limitation does not apply to those who teach JROTC, current service members, or current or former law enforcement officers. Librarians, janitors and cafeteria workers would be eligible to carry guns, along with teachers who perform extracurricular roles, like coaching football or supervising the chess club.
Scott admitted that he still opposed the guardian provision.
"I still think law enforcement officers should be the ones who protect our schools," he said before signing the bill. "I am glad, however, that the plan in this bill is not mandatory…. If counties do not want to do this, they simply can say no."
Scott added that he had talked to legislators about re-diverting funds that were not used for the guardian program to employ more law enforcement officers. If he vetoed the program's funding, he said, that would not be possible.
Though the bill has faced stiff opposition from the NRA, it also fell short of the gun control measures many students, parents and teachers had advocated.
On Wednesday, a majority of House Democrats voted against the GOP-sponsored bill on the basis that would allow some teachers and staffers to carry guns on campus and did not go far enough in restricting access to assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The Florida Education Assn. urged Scott on Thursday to jettison funding for arming teachers.
In a letter to Scott, the teachers union president said that the guardian program would enable more than 200,000 school employees to carry firearms on campus.
"We urge you to honor your instincts and act to keep additional firearms from our schools unless they are in the hands of trained law enforcement personnel," Joanne McCall, president of the teachers union, wrote to the governor.
"Our teachers and other school employees are ready to fiercely defend our students but none of them should ever have to choose between shepherding students to safety or confronting an armed assailant where they are sure to draw fire towards the very students they are trying to protect," she added.
As the bill moved through the Legislature, the NRA, sent out a flurry of "emergency alerts" to its supporters. Accusing Republican leaders who supported the bill of "bullying and coercion," it urged supporters to call elected officials to demand they block the legislation.
"YOU and every other law-abiding gun owner is being blamed for an atrocious act of premeditated murder," Marion Hammer, an NRA and Unified Sportsmen of Florida lobbyist, wrote in an alert Tuesday. "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. Despite that fact, Senate leaders rammed through gun control as part of the bill."
The NRA's lawsuit seeks an injunction to stop Florida from enforcing its new gun restrictions.
"This blanket ban violates the fundamental rights of thousands of responsible, law-abiding Florida citizens and is thus invalid under the Second and Fourteenth Amendments," the suit says.
For all the disagreement, some portions of the bill were uncontroversial.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle seemed in broad agreement on additional funding for mental health services, giving law enforcement officials more power to temporarily seize weapons and ammunition from people with mental health issues, and allocating $25 million to destroy and rebuild Marjory Stoneman Douglas' three-story freshman building.
"The bottom line is Floridians were not going to take no action at all," said Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida. "Something had to be done…. Everywhere, people just said, 'They better do something or I'm not going to vote Republican.'"
With narrow votes in the last two presidential and gubernatorial elections, MacManus said Republicans felt they needed to bow to public opinion on gun control.
Last week, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 62% of Florida voters supported a nationwide ban on 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.
"Yes, it was a calculation in a way," MacManus said of Scott's decision to sign the bill. "But the bottom line is when he has the support of the 17 families, who pleaded, 'Just do something,' there really wasn't a choice."
Jarvie is a special correspondent
4:45 p.m.: The article was updated with news of the NRA lawsuit.
2:35 p.m.: The article was updated with additional details and comments.