The emotional fault lines that have divided the state since the school shooting in Parkland were on display in the Florida Senate on Saturday as lawmakers passionately rejected an assault weapons ban and moved forward with a voluntary plan to arm teachers in schools.
The votes came in a rare weekend floor session as the Senate spent the day on legislation aimed at responding to the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The bill, SB 7026, would inject millions of dollars into mental health and school safety programs that lawmakers have long ignored and do something unseen in Florida for decades: impose new limits on gun access.
“If anything has come out of that tragedy, it is the realization that we have not done enough to this point comprehensively to have mechanisms in place ... to prevent this from occurring,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, as he introduced a new draft of the Senate plan.
The Senate had planned to take up its version of the legislation Friday, but with dozens of amendments drafted by Democrats, Senate leaders decided to spend nearly eight hours Saturday debating the issue. Galvano also revised the proposal to include some components sought by House leaders. The Senate is expected to approve the measure Monday and send it to the House, where leaders there hope to approve it in time for it to reach the governor’s desk before the session ends on March 9.
Despite the additional time, Democrats accomplished little in their efforts to modify the plan produced by conservative Republicans. The Senate rejected nearly four dozen Democratic amendments — from banning assault weapons, creating a registry for guns, allowing local governments to pass stronger gun laws and requiring background checks for gun purchases outside of the state, to prohibiting the sale and transfer of large-capacity magazines.
“I’m disappointed,” said Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon. “A lot of our ideas were good and some were kept off just to keep them off.”
The assault weapons ban was rejected 20-17 with two Republicans, Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami and Rene Garcia of Hialeah, joining all 15 Democrats to support the ban. Republican Sen. Dana Young of Tampa missed the vote. Another amendment, to remove the proposal to allow school districts to train and arm teachers, failed on a 20-18 vote, with Republican Tom Lee of Thonotosassa joining Garcia, Flores and the Democrats.
The so-called “school marshal program” would allow school districts to work with county law enforcement to deputize trained school personnel to carry concealed weapons during school hours. Gov. Rick Scott has said he opposes arming school teachers, and the program is opposed by most of the members of the 28-member Florida Conference of Black State Legislators, who fear that black students could become disproportionately discriminated against by school officials carrying firearms.
Parkland parents and students who have appeared before legislative committees were overwhelmingly opposed to arming school teachers, as is the governor. A statewide Quinnipiac University poll conducted last week said 56 percent of voters oppose the idea and 40 percent support the giving teachers firearms.
In response to that concern, the Republican majority agreed to accept an amendment by Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, to require school officials who are trained to carry weapons to also undergo 12 hours of diversity training, on top of the 132 hours of firearms training they must receive to be certified to carry a weapon in school.
Known as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, the legislation will be accompanied by an unprecedented infusion of cash into the school system to address mental health issues. The $400 million package includes $18.3 million for mobile crisis teams working with the Department of Children and Families and the schools; $500,000 for mental health first aid training; and $69 million for mental health assistance to school districts.
In response to reports that law enforcement and school officials had numerous warning signs to flag troubling behavior by gunman Nikolas Cruz, Galvano said the legislation “empowers law enforcement” to seize and hold firearms for up to 24 hours for anyone who is being held under the Baker Act and longer if they obtain a risk protection order from the court. If someone is deemed a “significant risk or threat,” a court can also issue a search warrant for firearms.
Galvano called the legislation a compilation of “many, many ideas,” informed in part by the parents of victims and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and many in the Parkland community who traveled to Tallahassee last week.
“I think this journey is just beginning,” added Galvano, who is expected to become Senate president next year. “This is not the end all and be all. I think we have much to do in this area, and I plan to do much in this area” so that all people are “safe to lead their daily lives and be productive in this state.”
The four-part package focuses on mental health, firearms safety, school safety and communication and includes what Galvano said was “the most frequent request” — to raise the age for buying a rifle or shotgun from 18 to 21. He failed to note that many of the parents and thousands of activists who rallied at the Capitol also wanted lawmakers to ban assault weapons.
Democrats made sure that Republicans didn’t escape a debate on that issue, which public opinion polls show most Floridians support.
For more than an hour, the Senate debated an amendment by Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, to add an assault weapons ban to the package.
Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs, an opponent of the ban, cited Adolf Hitler for seizing guns from German citizens and defended the need to allow civilians to have access to them. Democratic Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, who is Jewish and represents Parkland, called the analogy “absolutely unfair.”
He recalled the evening he spent with parents waiting for the bodies of the victims to be identified and told his colleagues: “Everyone [from Parkland] is in agreement about banning assault weapons,” he said.
Galvano said he included what he thought was necessary for school safety, and he “did not want to include at this point a complete ban on firearms” because he said he thought an assault weapons ban would not be constitutional under the privacy and right to bear arms provisions of Florida’s Constitution.
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami was among several Democrats who argued that the high-capacity weapons are not needed for civilians.
“They are designed to kill ... modified for civilian use and then sold to the public with billions of dollars of profit,” he said. “The reason it is not being included is not because of constitutional law. It is a political decision not to include an assault weapons ban in here.”
But Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, countered that she and her colleagues were not motivated by politics. She said she is willing to raise the age to 21 but bristled at the claim by gun control activists that prayers don’t matter.
“The one thing that will actually change this the most is the one thing that has become fighting words — and that is to say we need thoughts and prayers,” she said.
The floor session began at 10 a.m. and was scheduled to end at 1 p.m., but senators added up to another eight hours to debate more than four dozen amendments. At 3 p.m., immediately after rejecting the assault weapons ban, the Senate paused and observed a moment of silence for the 17 Parkland victims, as requested by Gov. Scott.
In one moment of drama, senators briefly approved and then rejected a two-year moratorium on the sale of AR-15 assault rifles, the type used in the Feb. 14 massacre.
The surprise action came on an unrecorded voice vote in which senators shouted yea or nay. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, ruled that the amendment passed. As Senate rules allow, it was reconsidered and overturned by a roll call vote of 21-17 with Flores and Garcia joining Democrats.
Throughout the debate, Democrats insisted that a handful of amendments be recorded with roll call votes, an effort to get Republican votes on the record with the idea that gun issues will become a campaign issue in November.
Lawmakers also shot down an amendment by state Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, which would have required the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to notify local police when somebody fails a background check. A handful of states already have such laws, designed to catch people who lie about their history on background checks.
In the last two years, nearly 8,500 felons, 1,600 people with active warrants and 2,400 domestic violence abusers were denied guns because of background checks. But how many of those people were arrested is a mystery.
The Senate’s Republican majority also prevailed 23-13 in defeating a Democratic amendment that would allow cities and counties to pass stricter gun laws than the Legislature. All local gun laws were pre-empted in 1987, and seven years ago, lawmakers revised the law to subject local officials to fines, personal liability and possible removal from office if they violated the legislative pre-emption.
“We should have continuity across the state,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, one of the Legislature’s most reliable supporters of the National Rifle Association.
Key features of the bill include:
▪ Expanding the existing three-day waiting period on handguns to apply to all firearms and requiring that the waiting period be extended if the gun background check is not completed. The exceptions to the waiting period are for those who already hold concealed weapons permits and for people who have completed a 16-hour hunter safety course, are law enforcement or correctional officers or are members of the military.
▪ Raising the minimum age to purchase a rifle or a shotgun from 18 to 21.
▪ Banning the use, sale, and possession of bump stocks, which modify semiautomatic firearms to become automatic.
▪ Establishing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission beginning in June and lasting for three years. The panel will make recommendations on school safety and understand what went wrong at Douglas High. Members will be appointed by the Legislature, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the governor. “This commission will have teeth,” Galvano said, noting it will have the ability to review records and issue subpoenas through FDLE.
▪ Creating the Office of Safe Schools, which includes a safety officer in each district and an individual in each school. The goal is to apply the best practices and “make sure that along with everything else that we focus on from the state down to the local that we prioritize safety and security,” Galvano said.
▪ Providing mental health money to serve at-risk children and families in the school system.
▪ Establishing Safe School officers in each school, including school resource officers as well as the ability for some districts to train and arm teachers or other school personnel to carry concealed weapons. “We want to have at least one or more officers at each school,” Galvano said.
▪ Establishing the “marshal program” that allows school districts and sheriffs departments the option of developing a program for school personnel to undergo 132 hours of training, “for the limited purpose of responding to an active shooter situation,” Galvano said. “There will be no other authority invested in that purpose.”
▪ Developing a mobile app called “Fortify Florida,” for students, parents, teachers and others to forward tips on suspicious activity and behavior anonymously. Galvano said it was a recommendation that came to the Legislature through the attorney general’s office but “the legislation is not geared to any particular vendor.”
“We have to start somewhere,” Galvano said, noting the speed with which the measure has moved in less than a week.
Lee became the most vocal critic of the plan, trying and failing to remove both the gun control elements and the plan to arm school personnel calling them “a bumper sticker for November.”
“I think it's window dressing,’’ he said. “And I, for one, won’t be going home trying to pretend that I did something trying to solve the problem.”
Because the bill limits access to guns to some people, the NRA opposes it. In a blast message to members, the Florida chapter of the NRA on Thursday urged its members to call for a defeat of the bill.
“Senators are being bullied into voting for gratuitous gun control measures in order to be able to vote on school safety,” the message said. “Senate leadership is trying to force Senators to vote for gun control if they want to vote to harden schools, to put armed security in schools and to keep guns out of the hands of dangerously mentally ill people.”
A few dozen gun control protesters walked the Capitol halls Saturday morning with signs criticizing the provision aimed at arming teachers, and the absence of an assault rifle ban. Several of them also sat through the Senate’s morning session, though many chose to leave before the chamber took up the amendments in the afternoon session.
Miami Herald staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.