Students rally at Florida’s Capitol to demand action on gun control, mental health
Facing anguished relatives and classmates of shooting victims, two House and Senate committees advanced legislation Tuesday to create a new statewide program to put armed teachers in classrooms — over the vocal opposition of teachers, parents and many Parkland residents.
In the House, the Appropriations Committee voted along party lines to approve the measure to train teachers to carry guns in class under the direction of local law enforcement — if superintendents or the school board approve.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a similar bill, but required that both the sheriff and school district officials in a county agree to the program before it can be adopted.
“The last line of defense would be a highly trained person in the school,” said Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, referring to teachers with guns.
The $67 million “school marshal” program is the most controversial aspect of HB 18-06 and SPB 7026, the nearly matching legislation crafted by lawmakers to respond to the killing of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14.
The bills also impose a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, raise the age to buy a gun from 18 to 21 and give police more power to seize guns from people who threaten themselves or others.
“The reality is, we should have acted this comprehensively long ago,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the sponsor of the Senate reform package.
Most of the money for the program would be spent on training. Oliva said he didn’t know if teachers would be provided guns or would have to buy them, but the House plan does provide a one-time $500 stipend for those who volunteer to have a gun.
The proposals still need the approval of the full House and Senate plus the signature of Gov. Rick Scott to be enacted. The governor has said he opposes “arming teachers.”
According to preliminary estimates, the state’s goal is 10 marshals in every school, which would equate to 37,000 statewide. The state would cover the costs of background checks, drug testing, psychological exams and the 132 hours of training.
The program is mirrored after one implemented in Polk County schools by Sheriff Grady Judd, who said that arming trained teachers is more cost effective than the cost of hiring enough armed school resource officers in each school.
Funding that many school resource officers “would be a staggering amount of money,” Judd told the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, D-Lakeland, said there might also be a shortage of willing staff. “We don’t have the manpower to staff the schools with the resource officers without the marshal program,” she said.
The bills also call for allocating $400 million to pay for the components of the plan, including $67 million to fund the marshal program, $100 million to increase mental health assistance in schools, $75 million for “safe schools,” $90 million to make school buildings more secure and about $25 million to create crisis and action teams at the Department of Children and Families.
Legislators will also budget $1 million for a permanent memorial at Douglas High, and $225,000 to pay death benefits to three school staff members who lost their lives.
For the second day, family members detailed the horror of the Valentine’s Day shooting in testimony before legislators.
In the House, a 16-year-old girl recalled stepping over bodies of victims to get out of the school. A teacher described terrified students wanting to jump into a canal. A mother recalled the screams of a parent learning of a child’s death.
Most Parkland parents strongly oppose arming teachers, but they praised legislators for taking the first steps in decades to improve school safety in Florida after the worst mass shooting at a U.S. high school.
“The FBI, the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the school resource officers, you legislators — you all failed me and my little boy,” said Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was murdered. “I cannot wait for you to do the right thing and protect the children of this great state.”
The mother of slain geography teacher Scott Beigel, who gave his life to save his students, pleaded with lawmakers not to put loaded guns in the hands of teachers, even after a rigorous training and screening program.
“It could easily cause additional chaos and fatalities,” Linda Beigel Schulman told legislators. If another shooter attacks a school, she said, “with the ongoing chaos, law enforcement could unintentionally shoot at a teacher.”
Her voice breaking, Beigel Schulman said her son became a teacher to teach, “not to be a law enforcement officer.”
Experts were split on the question. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri endorsed the program, but Lawrence Leon, chief of the school district police in Palm Beach County, is opposed.
Scott and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio oppose arming classroom teachers. President Donald Trump supports it.
A Democratic effort to strip out the marshal program failed on an 18-9 party-line vote in the House.
Soon after the bill’s passage, House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s political committee, Watchdog PAC, sent an email blast that promoted a morning appearance on Fox News on his “game-changing legislation to end gun-free zones.”
The email said: “President Trump is right — we should allow willing, trained teachers to carry a firearm.”
Corcoran is considering seeking the Republican nomination for governor.
NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer unsuccessfully called for defeat of the bill. She said gun control provisions are unnecessary, ineffective and “won’t stop massacres.”
“These provisions are nothing more than an attack on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding people,” Hammer testified, while adding that she supports the provisions in the bill that address security measures in schools, which includes arming teachers.
Furious Democrats blasted Republicans for a flurry of late amendments to the bill and for prematurely cutting off debate. Several Democrats voted against the bill because they oppose arming teachers, but never got the chance to explain that on TV.
Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, called the stifling of debate “disgusting” and “deplorable.”
The chairman, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, gave preference to Parkland residents who had driven nearly 500 miles to the state Capitol.
Many of them urged the committee to go further and pass an assault weapons ban and a limit to high-capacity magazines to keep the semi-automatic rifles out of the hands of the troubled and mentally unstable.
But, for the third time in two days, both House and Senate committees rejected amendments to impose a ban.
The Senate committee voted 12-8 to reject an amendment to outlaw the sale and possession of about 200 specific types of semi-automatic rifles. Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, joined Democrats to support the amendment by Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando.
In the House, the 30-member panel voted 18-11 to reject a similar amendment. Eighteen Republicans voted no; 10 Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Bill Hager of Boca Raton, voted yes.
The assault weapons vote in the House followed emotional pleas from a Parkland parent who’s a friend of Gina Montalto, a 14-year-old girl who was one of the 17 fatalities.
“This is your opportunity. The world is watching,” said Amber Hersh, a Parkland resident and friend of the family of Montalto.
The amendment was proposed by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, who also proposed a ban after the Pulse nightclub massacre in June 2016.
“These weapons of war have become the gold standard for mass murderers,” Smith testified.
Smith, who lost friends in the Pulse nightclub massacre, said he reviewed their autopsy reports. He provided graphic descriptions of the damage to the human body’s internal organs by semi-automatic rifles.
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @stevebousquet.
How they voted
Here is how South Florida's representatives voted Tuesday on whether to approve a ban on the sale of 200 specific types of semi-automatic rifles.
Among those voting no were the panel’s chairman, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami; Michael Bileca, R-Miami; George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale; Jeannette Nunez, R-Miami; Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo; Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.
Among those voting yes, in favor of the ban, were Lori Berman, D-Lantana; Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale; Katie Edwards-Walpole, D-Plantation; Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek; Shevrin Jones, D-West Park; Kionne McGhee, D-Miami; Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs; David Richardson, D-Miami Beach; Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, Richard Stark, D-Weston.