- Kenya Woodard Post Capital Correspondent
One day after a gunman shot and killed 17 people at a South Florida high school, Senate President Joe Negron said his interest would be focused on improving school safety and access to mental health treatment – not restricting gun laws.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Negron, R-Stuart, said there could be some interest among senators in increasing the $40 million it has already carved out in its 2018-2019 budget for mental health counseling and support in public schools.
Those dollars would be used for a mental health initiative proposed by Republican Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, of Naples. To receive the money, school districts must create a plan that provides treatment services for students, assist them in dealing with bullying, trauma, and violence and offers strategies or programs to “reduce the likelihood of at-risk students developing social, emotional, or behavioral health problems or substance use disorders,” among other requirements.
Additionally, this year the Senate has increased funding for school safety by $13 million, he said.
But when asked what his chamber would do to strengthen gun safety laws, the Stuart Republican was elusive.
“My focus is on making sure that lawful citizens who are obeying the law and entitled to their constitutional rights have appropriate access to firearms,” he said.
This legislative session, lawmakers have introduced several gun bills, most that expand access to guns and where people can go with gun. The one that appears to have the best chance of become law is one (HB 1419, SB 1048) that would allow a licensed person to carry a concealed weapon inside a church or other house of worship. Both versions have reached the floor of their respective chambers.
But the one bill that would limit access to assault weapons like the A-15 rifle that police say 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz used Wednesday to kill 17 people Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland has not been scheduled for its first committee meeting this session of the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature.
Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said her bill (SB 196) would keep such assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines off Florida streets.
“I question if we should allow anyone under 21 to have weapons of mass destruction. Some of these guns are better than what our law enforcement officers have,” said Stewart, whose district includes the part of Orlando where the Pulse nightclub shooting occurred in 2016.
Cruz, who authorities say legally purchased the A-15 rifle used in the shooting, was taken into custody Wednesday shortly after the mass shooting.
With the session scheduled to end in three weeks, Stewart is still trying to reach Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, in hopes that the bill will be heard Tuesday at the committee’s meeting, its last for the session.
The failure to schedule the bill for a hearing is “unfair,” she said.
“My bill they may not like, but we haven’t had a conversation about it,” said Stewart, who last year introduced a bill banning bump stocks following the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
If the bill is again passed over for a hearing, Stewart said she will refile it next year – as she’s done for the last three years
“We’ll just keep doing it over and over and maybe they’ll let us have an adult conversation,” she said.