Photo via Florida House of Representatives
After hours of intense debate on a school-safety measure, Senate Democrats were unable Saturday to strip a controversial provision that would allow specially trained teachers to bring guns to schools or to add an assault-weapons ban demanded by survivors of last month’s mass shooting at a Broward County high school.
Democrats spent the rare Saturday floor session trying to amend the sweeping bill, hurriedly crafted by Republican leaders in response to the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 14 students and three faculty members dead.
But outnumbered 23-15 in the Senate, and even with the frequent support of two Republicans, Democrats were only able to make marginal changes to the bill (SB 7026) aimed at making schools safer and keeping guns away from mentally ill people.
Much of the debate in the week since Republican leaders rolled out the package has centered on a proposed “school marshal” program. That program would allow specially trained teachers and other school workers, who would be deputized by local sheriffs, to carry guns to school.
Gov. Rick Scott is among critics —- including the PTA, the union representing teachers, and many parents and students from Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High —- who oppose the proposition.
Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who is chairman of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, pleaded with senators to support an amendment that would have removed the marshal program from the bill, saying that it would further endanger minority children who are at risk of gun violence.
Black parents already must have “the talk” with their children about how to avoid getting into confrontations with law enforcement officers and how to keep interactions with police from escalating, Thurston said. That talk will have to begin earlier if teachers are allowed to be armed, he predicted.
“We can’t agree to that. No type of way. No form. No shape. This is a non-starter,” he said.
The Senate plan and a similar House proposal would allow school boards to decide whether they want to implement the marshal program. If school boards opt for the program, the House proposal would require sheriffs to participate, while the Senate proposal would not.
While being grilled by Democrats, Sen. Bill Galvano, the bill’s sponsor, said that the school-marshal plan “hasn’t just been drawn out of the air,” but was based on other programs in Florida and across the country.
“We’re seeking to transform school security in the state of Florida,” said Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who will take over as Senate president in November.
The marshal program would exist “in a new state of affairs,” based on other components of the bill, such as a new Office of School Safety within the Department of Education and requiring school-safety specialists and threat-assessment teams at the local level.
The legislation includes broad outlines for the marshal program, including the requirement of at least 132 hours of training and psychological screening, but would leave up to sheriffs and school districts details such as what types of guns could be used and where they would be stored, Galvano said.
That means parents, students and others would have no way of knowing which teachers might be armed, Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said.
“We will have no clue in 67 counties in this state of what this marshal program looks like,” Gibson said. “We don’t need additional guns in schools. You don’t add fuel to a fire that’s already burning. It’s burning just fine on its own.”
But Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson argued that allowing teachers to carry guns would make students safer.
“We are many colors in this chamber. I would want a teacher to have the opportunity to stop an evil person from slaughtering children,” Simpson, R-Trilby, said. “But the only thing that’s going to stop a slaughter, in that moment, is if it’s fortunate enough to have a person in that room with a firearm. And the marshal program provides an opportunity, not a guarantee, for that to be done.”
The House and Senate packages have faced pushback from politicians on both ends of the gun-control spectrum.
Many House Republicans and the National Rifle Association are opposed to proposed regulations that would raise age requirements from 18 to 21 and impose a three-day waiting period for the purchase of rifles and other long guns. Proposals would also allow law enforcement officers to seize weapons from people who pose a danger to themselves or others and ban the sale of what are known as “bump stocks,” an idea also opposed by the NRA.
Democrats are frustrated because the proposals fail to include a ban on assault-style weapons such as the semi-automatic rifle used by 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder after the nation’s second-worst school shooting.
Survivors of the shooting, parents of slain students and high schoolers from across the state have flooded the Capitol since the Valentine’s Day shooting, with the vast majority seeking a ban on assault weapons.
The students asked lawmakers “to do one thing: make school shootings and assault weapons a thing of the past,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat who offered an amendment Saturday that sought to ban them.
“Assault weapons are really killing machines. They are not rifles, and they are not guns that we use to protect our homes and go hunting,” she said at the end of an hour-long debate on her amendment.
Immediately after the amendment failed in a 20-17 vote, Senate President Joe Negron ordered a moment of silence as requested by Scott for the entire state on the 17th day after the 17 Parkland students and faculty were killed.
Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, a member of the black caucus, conceded Saturday that the ban on assault weapons was “too divisive” for the GOP-dominated Legislature.
“It splits us down the middle, and it’s not the time to do that right now. This is the time to come together,” Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said.
But he beseeched his colleagues to support a proposed amendment doing away with the marshal program, saying lawmakers need more time to explore the issue.
“This is an important piece of legislation that we’ve put together in a week. We can all get behind (it) if we don’t have something like this in it that splits us down the middle,” Braynon said. “Why would we take this moment when we need to come together … to almost tear us apart as a body?”
After nearly eight hours of debate on the attempted amendments, Sen. Tom Lee proposed removing the most-controversial portions of the bill: the marshal program and the new restrictions on the purchase of long guns.
Lee, a former Senate president, said lawmakers have consensus on two issues —- keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill people and school hardening.
The “gun control and that marshal plan are for a bumper sticker in November,” Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said.
“They’re going to do nothing. Neither one of them,” he said. Lee’s proposal to remove the issues failed.