Florida may have become the unlikely launchpad for modern gun-safety activism in the wake of one of the country’s worst school shootings, but the Sunshine State is quickly returning to its Gunshine State roots.
A year after one of the country’s most conservative state Capitols passed sweeping gun-safety and mental health legislation after 17 people were killed in Parkland, Florida looks poised to pass a bill that expands a new and voluntary school security program by allowing trained and vetted classroom teachers to carry guns.
The proposal, a revived provision cut from last year’s Parkland-motivated legislation in order to secure its narrow passage, passed out of committee Thursday in the Senate and will now move to the floor for debate. Its renewal as part of a broader school safety bill has troubled the same activists who in 2018 held up Florida’s actions as proof of changing attitudes toward gun laws.
“It’s really disappointing to see them now doing something that flies in the face of what they did last year,” Nico Bocour, state legislative director for the gun-safety advocacy group Giffords, said of the Florida Legislature.
But the legislation being considered now is a direct result of the law that passed last year. And if anything, Florida lawmakers are returning to normalcy.
The state has historically been among the first to embrace gun lobby legislation. It is expected to issue its two-millionth concealed carry permit before summer. And voters this summer elected a governor who during the campaign questioned whether Florida violated the Constitution by blocking anyone younger than 21 from buying a rifle.
So, as the post-Parkland focus shifts increasingly toward accountability and prevention, don’t be surprised if some of the solutions include more guns, not less.
“Parkland happened while we were in session, and I think there were a lot of members who felt like we had to do something from a political perspective based on the emotion of the time,” said Greg Steube, a Sarasota lawmaker who spent years in the Legislature before his November election to Congress. “If that shooting would have occurred when we weren’t in session, I don’t think you would have seen that type of bill passed. It was shoved through.”
Ironically, this year’s proposal to arm willing classroom teachers is the type of legislation that Steube tried for years to pass without success. Now, the idea is one of many recommended by a bipartisan panel created last year to investigate the Parkland shooting and prevent future incidents.
It’s also the type of proposal that gun-safety groups are fighting at the highest levels. In the same way that Florida further validated calls last year to ban bump stocks and create “red flag” laws allowing a judge to take guns away from someone with mental health issues, the Legislature could turn around this year and endorse President Donald Trump’s call to fight school shootings by giving teachers guns.
“I just don’t think that [gun-free zones] should be the law of Florida,” said Steube. “I don’t think people want to be sitting ducks waiting for law enforcement to show up and save them.”
The controversial legislation isn’t necessarily guaranteed to pass in the Senate, where Republicans hold a six-seat advantage. Even as it moved forward Thursday, Senate Democrats worked to set up a vote to take the provision arming teachers out of the bill. In the House, a floor reading of the broader school safety bill was postponed to an unspecified date early this month on a day when Parkland students swarmed the Capitol, although a spokesman for the Chamber said one had nothing to do with the other.
Polls also suggest the idea remains unpopular, with a Quinnipiac University poll finding last month that 57 percent of Florida voters are against the concept.
“This is not a good idea. We don’t think this will help. But I’m not terribly surprised,” said Kate Kile, a Tallahassee member of the Everytown-affiliated Moms Demand Action organization. “Two steps forward, one step back. That’s the way change comes.”
But the legislation has the support of some key lawmakers, including Senate President Bill Galvano, whose political committee received $500,000 from Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety last year after he championed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. In an interview, Galvano said it’s “disingenuous” for gun-control groups to criticize the state for implementing the recommendations of the Parkland commission — which was created as part of the same bill they celebrated last year.
“That’s what’s happening. I wish we didn’t have to do it. I really do. But reality is reality,” he said. “It’s basically the same bill, 2.0 with improvements.”
Bocour, Giffords’ state legislative director, said gun activism continues to see success around the country, noting that the U.S. House recently passed background checks legislation and that a number of NRA-backed congressional candidates lost in the midterm elections.
But last year’s passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act doesn’t necessarily portend future legislation supporting gun control in the state. In fact, legislation is currently moving through Tallahassee that would require two-thirds support from the electorate in order to pass a constitutional amendment — complicating an effort by Parkland families and guns activists to place an assault weapons ban in the constitution.
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association is suing to overturn last year’s Parkland legislation. Former NRA president and Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer declined to comment for this article, but last year she called the state’s actions “gratuitous gun control.” She said it “punishes law-abiding gun owners for the acts of a criminal and the failure of the FBI” and other government agencies that failed.
Nationally, there are also signs that the momentum on gun safety is waning, even among Democrats. Guns have slid to the backburner among 2020 presidential candidates. A Washington Post analysis of social media content by 15 contenders found that, of all the issues studied, gun control ranked near the bottom in terms of discussion in the month of March despite the horrific shooting in New Zealand.
But Parkland’s activists aren’t dissuaded.
This week, they helped California Congressman Eric Swalwell roll out his presidential campaign with a guns town hall a few miles from Stoneman Douglas. During the event, Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in the Parkland shooting, told Swalwell that he’d “catapulted gun safety into the presidential race.”
Afterward, Cameron Kasky, a co-founder of March For Our Lives, said gun-safety advocates will keep pushing to change the laws in the country and state. And, he said, there will unfortunately always be the next shooting to snap them back if the politicians stop talking about guns
“When there’s another mass shooting I’m sure everybody is going to be talking about it, talking about how we need to get these things done,” said Kasky. “Unfortunately, there are only so many of us willing to talk about it every day.”
Herald/Times reporter Emily Mahoney contributed to this report.