by Patricia Mazzei
MIAMI, FLORIDA — Gun control legislation is moving at an unusually fast pace in the Florida Capitol following a deadly high school shooting, which has pushed state lawmakers and the governor to act after years of loosening restrictions on firearms.
Powerful budget committees in the state House and Senate signed off on a package of bills Tuesday that would raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21 from 18, mandate a three-day waiting period for most gun purchases, and increase funding for school safety measures and access to mental health care. The bills must still be approved by the full House and Senate, and approved by Gov. Rick Scott.
Included in the proposals is a contentious, $67 million voluntary program to arm school staff, including teachers, trained by law enforcement to carry concealed weapons on campus. Lawmakers gave preliminary approval to what has become known as the “marshal program” despite impassioned pleas by many parents of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students in Parkland, who said educators should not have to take on the role of the police. A similar program already exists in Polk County, in Central Florida.
Linda Beigel Schulman, the mother of Scott Beigel, a geography teacher who was killed, told lawmakers her son had become a teacher to teach, not “to be a law enforcement officer.”
“If teachers were allowed to carry weapons in school, it could easily cause additional chaos and fatalities,” she said.
Republican lawmakers, who are in control of both legislative chambers, said the program would help local sheriffs and police chiefs who do not have enough deputies or officers to assign to schools. State Rep. Jose Oliva, the bill sponsor in the House, described the required 132 hours of training for marshals deputised by law enforcement as “extensive.”
“Not everyone can possibly agree on a bill this size, on an issue this emotional,” Oliva, a Republican, said.
Scott, also a Republican, unveiled his own $500 million gun control package in Tallahassee last week and said he opposed arming teachers. But it was unclear if he would accept a proposal from lawmakers to arm school personnel other than teachers, such as athletic coaches who sometimes double as security monitors. He declined to clarify his position in a news conference in the Miami suburb of Doral on Tuesday.
“We should be focused on arming law enforcement,” said Scott, who has proposed helping school districts pay for an armed police officer or sheriff’s deputy at every school, and for every 1,000 students in large high schools. Stoneman Douglas High, with an enrollment of about 3,200, had a single school resource officer, a sheriff’s deputy.
Sheriff Scott Israel has said the former deputy, Scot Peterson, stood outside the building and did “nothing” during the shooting, an accusation Peterson has disputed. Peterson retired last week after Israel placed him under internal investigation.
Robert W. Runcie, the superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, said in an interview he opposed arming teachers. Arming other school personnel might be a “more rational idea,” Runcie said, but he added that his preference would be adding more law enforcement to school campuses.
Scott also declined to say if he would support the three-day waiting period for gun purchases, which was not part of his proposal to the Legislature. The governor has said a waiting period would not have stopped the shooting suspect at Stoneman Douglas High, Nikolas Cruz, from buying guns because nothing in his background check would have made the purchase unlawful.
The governor was accompanied in Doral by Ryan Petty and Andrew Pollack, the fathers of two of the children killed at Stoneman Douglas High, who pledged to return to Tallahassee in the 10 remaining days of the annual legislative session to pressure lawmakers to act.
“We are going to get a good bill passed this session,” said Scott, who is expected to run for a U.S. Senate seat later this year.
In Tallahassee, the National Rifle Association, one of the most influential special interest groups in the state, asked House lawmakers to vote against the legislation.
“These provisions are nothing more than an attack on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding people,” said Marion Hammer, the NRA’s Florida lobbyist.
Parents, students and teachers from South Florida, the state’s Democratic stronghold, have been a forceful presence in the Capitol since last week, when busloads of Stoneman Douglas High students spent two days lobbying — and protesting — lawmakers, urging them to take more far-reaching action and ban all assault weapons. Cruz is accused of killing 17 students and staff members with a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle.
Democratic legislators, who are far outnumbered in the House and Senate and wield no power over which legislation gets considered, tried repeatedly over three committee hearings on Monday and Tuesday to amend the gun control bills to include an assault weapons ban and other, more stringent policies. Each of their efforts failed.