Nearly one year ago, lawmakers stood on the floor of the Florida Legislature and wept while they debated how they should respond to the Parkland massacre. In the House, the debate lasted eight hours.
The question over who should be armed in schools proved the most divisive issue. It caused friction between then-Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders, splintered Democrats and stoked painful conversations about race as black lawmakers feared that students of color could be targeted.
After the proposal to allow teachers to carry guns sparked a backlash, lawmakers chose to arm some school personnel but not classroom instructors.
This year, lawmakers have revived the idea of arming teachers — and it is gaining support. A bill expanding the existing “Guardian” program, Senate Bill 7030, passed through a key committee Tuesday, which means it could be one of the first bills the entire Florida Senate will consider once the legislative session begins March 5.
“I want someone there to protect my eight grandchildren and their generation,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “They deserve to have someone ready.”
Yet while Republican lawmakers are building a consensus on arming teachers, staunch opposition to the idea remains elsewhere in Florida.
Polls have shown a majority of Floridians oppose more guns in schools, and the statewide teachers’ union is categorically against it. On Monday, relatives of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School submitted a petition to do something state lawmakers have rejected: banning “assault weapons,” which the group defined as any semiautomatic rifle or shotgun capable of carrying more than 10 rounds internally or by magazine.
“If these politicians don’t take action on this, the voters can,” said David Hogg, a former student who emerged as one of the leading figures in the post-Parkland movement.
Despite such sentiments to curb guns, Senate Bill 7030 appears to have a clear path to passage. That’s because unlike last year, the state’s Republican leaders are unified in their push to allow teachers to be armed in school.
Current law excludes teachers
Under the current law that was signed by Scott last year, teachers that “exclusively perform classroom duties” cannot participate in the program, limiting the authorization to carry guns to other non-instructional school staff, like coaches and administrators.
“The real question is … what more effective way is there to arm the very people that would be under attack?” Florida House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, told reporters last month.
Oliva added that the issue has become overly “politicized” when there are plenty of teachers ready and willing to defend students. Proponents have emphasized that teachers who are former cops or ex-military would be ideal.
Last year, when he filed the landmark post-Parkland bill, Senate President Bill Galvano had language allowing teachers to carry guns. But after Scott objected, the bill was amended.
This year, Galvano and other backers of the legislation have an ally in Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis.
“If you’re somebody who’s working at a school and you’re somebody who’s trained and who has the ability to do it, then you shouldn’t be precluded from carrying a firearm that could potentially deter people,” DeSantis recently told reporters, adding that the program must remain optional.
That leaves this year’s bill with little resistance from the top, much to the dismay of some Democrats.
“I can’t believe that in an elementary school, a parent would be comfortable with a teacher who has a gun,” said Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. “I don’t want that for my grandchildren.”
Cruz voted against the bill last year when she was in the House and said the measure to arm staff was designed to “appease” the National Rifle Association, which has supported efforts to arm teachers nationally. She’s filed her own bill that would allow districts that choose not to arm staff to use that money for other school safety measures.
Under current law, every public school campus is required to have at least one armed guard, whether that’s a law enforcement officer or armed staff. Only $10 million of the $67 million set aside last year for the Guardian program was spent, partly because many districts opted to use police officers instead.
Safety Commission’s report
The effort to arm teachers received another jolt when a previous critic of the idea, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, became its champion. As chair of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, Gualtieri spent much of his time reviewing the Parkland shooting, a process he said has changed his position.
“My views have changed and they’ve changed because of facts,” he told lawmakers recently. “We don’t have [enough] cops, so if we have to put someone — which we should do — that can protect those kids, a good guy with a gun, we have to rely on somebody else.”
The resurgence of the armed teacher debate has left Broward state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, with an internal back-and-forth that wracks her daily, she said. Book is also on the commission, along with Gualtieri and several Parkland parents.
In Broward County, help from law enforcement is readily available. Book said she worries about rural counties where that’s not the case and help could be 30 miles away.
“I’ve seen the crime scene videos, I’ve seen it all,” she said. “Everyone would be dead.”
Still a risk
But Professor Sheldon Greenberg, who teaches in the education school at Johns Hopkins University and who’s conducted research about the effectiveness of armed teachers, said the risks associated with having more guns in schools outweigh the probability that a teacher could effectively protect students during the chaos of a mass shooting.
He found that even police officers, who have been trained and involved in previous shootings, still often miss their targets during crises.
“Compare that to a teacher in a school in an active shooter situation where you have … hundreds of students running in the halls in a panic,” Greenberg said. “We’re putting a lot of hope into teachers’ preparedness, readiness and then skill. It’s a pretty wild hope.”
Times/Herald staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.