Douglas High shooting bills advance quickly in Florida Legislature

Feb 27, 2018
  • By Kenya Woodard
  • Post Capital Correspondent
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel and Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert W. Runcie listen as Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks during a press conference outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Thursday morning, February 15, 2018, the day after former student Nikolas Cruz returned to the school and is accused of killing 17 people. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

For the second day in a row, a Florida legislative committee approved arming teachers over banning assault weapons.

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday voted 23-6 to approve a bill (PCB APC 18-06) that would create a “school marshal” program that would allow teachers to carry concealed weapons on school campuses after completing hundreds of hours of training by a sheriff’s office.

» RELATED: Post coverage of the Broward County shooting

That initiative is similar to the Florida Sheriff’s Marshal Program included in a bill (SPB 7026) approved Monday by the Senate Rules Committee on a 13-7 vote. The Senate is calling that proposal the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act.

Like the Senate Rules Committee, the House Appropriations Committee rejected an amendment that would ban assault weapons.

»RELATED: The latest in Florida political news

The House bill, like the Senate bill, also would raise the age to buy firearms from 18 to 21, impose a three-day waiting period to purchase long guns, provide increased early mental health screening in schools and allow officers to confiscate weapons of those deemed harmful to themselves or to others.

Also Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 13-7 to approve the bill approved the day before by the chamber’s Rules Committee.

The legislation, which is now headed to the House and Senate floors for full votes, was crafted quickly in response to the Feb. 14 mass shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. A former student, Nikolas Cruz, 19, has been charged in the killings.

The House bill was approved Tuesday after hours of testimony and debate from committee members, Parkland survivors and residents, and gun-control supporters. It would provide about $400 million to pay for its initiatives, including $98 million for school resource officers, $67 million for the “school marshal” program and another $67 million for school districts’ mental health screening.

The Senate plan provides similar funding, although it includes $100 million for mental health screening in schools.

Both proposals also contain $1 million for a memorial dedicated to the 17 victims of the mass shooting and nearly $30 million to raze and rebuild the freshman building where the shooting took place.

The marshal program was met with strong opposition from some committee members and Parkland survivors.

Instead of arming teachers, more money should be given to school resource officers, said Broward County School Board member Abby Freedman.

“I encourage you with the resources that are for training, please, please give it to the individuals for who that is their career,” she said.

Marshal program aside, the bill overall found support among Parkland survivors who saw it as a step forward to improving school safety.

Andrew Pollack, who’s daughter Meadow, 18, died in the shooting, implored the committee to “show how we’re going to protect our kids.”

“Our children deserve to go into a school just as we’re sitting here,” he said. “A child should go to school and not worry that someone is going to walk in with a gun.”

Max Schacter, whose son Alex died in the shooting, urged the committee members to set aside differences and compromise for the sake of students.

“You owe it to me, you owe it all those 16 other families,” he said.

Democrats tried to make a series of amendments that failed to win committee approval, including an assault weapons ban offered by Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, of Orlando.

He called such firearms “weapons of war,” which “have become the gold standard for mass murderers.

“This is a…critical part of the conversation if we’re going to be serious about tackling the public health crisis that is gun violence in this state and in this country,” Smith said.

In his closing remarks, Smith made an emotional plea to committee members to approve the amendment because “this is what the students have demanded.”

“We owe it to our constituents,” he said. “We owe it to the 17 in Parkland. We owe it to the 47 at Pulse. We owe it to the countless other victims.”

Friends of the parents of victim Gina Montalto, 14, also urged the committee to adopt the amendment.

“Our children lost a friend; our friend lost a daughter,” said one supporter. “This is your opportunity. The world is watching.”

But gun-rights proponents cried foul.

“The puzzle is people who don’t like guns who don’t trust themselves to own guns want to take away the rights of law-abiding citizens because of the action of criminals,” said Eric Friday, general counsel to the nonprofit, Florida Carry. “Criminal behavior should not be the criteria by which we limit rights.”

NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer also spoke against the amendment, telling the committee “when you read this bill, you will be hard-pressed to find any firearm that is not banned under this amendment.”

Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, crossed party lines to vote yes for the proposed assault weapons ban, but a majority bloc of the committee was unmoved, with 18 voting against the ban and 11 in favor.

Fort Lauderdale Democratic Rep. Bobby DuBose, who voted against the bill, said casting a vote in favor of it was akin to “voting for the NRA.”

“They are guiding this,” he said. “It’s no secret how heavy their hand is in this.”

DuBose decried the lack of bipartisanship in the bill’s final version, pointing to the lack of approval for any amendment proposed by Democrats.

“(Parkland students and supporters) asked us to ban the AR-15; we’re not doing that,” he said. “This thing is covered in partisan politics.”

But bill author Rep. Jose Oliva, R- Miami Lakes, called the bill “comprehensive” legislation that was “painstakingly” crafted to address the failures that led to the Parkland shooting.

Had it already been in place, “I think it would have prevented this tragedy,” he said.