Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed his first bill of the legislative session – a sweeping law that boosts school safety and restricts access to guns – despite it containing a program he opposes, which would allow some teachers to carry concealed weapons on campuses.
Flanked by parents of some of the victims of the Feb. 14 mass shooting in Parkland, Scott thanked the families of the victims and praised legislators for swiftly passing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act (SB 7026) just weeks after the shooting at the Broward County school left 17 dead.
“As a business man, I have always rejected the idea that government has to be slow,” said Scott, who moments earlier had met privately with the victims’ families. “Today should serve as an example to the entire country that government can and must move fast.”
The bill makes major changes to Florida gun laws, including imposing a three-day waiting period on the purchase of any firearm, boosting the minimum age to buy a gun in the state to 21 and banning the sale of bump stocks, a device meant to make a semi-automatic rifle fire like an automatic one.
Scott said the Legislature answered his calls for a bill that would make schools safer with more law enforcement on campuses and more money to harden schools, more funding for mental health services, and new restrictions on the mentally ill’s access to firearms.
“This bill does that,” he said.
While the bill won’t please all sides, Scott said he was proud of the collaborative process that occurred to make it happen.
“We reacted to a horrible situation, our Legislature came together, these families showed up, they were active, students were active,” he said. “(The law is) going to make our schools safer but…there’s always more we can do. We’re going to learn and continue to make this state a better place.”
Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina died in the shooting, said the law is the “beginning of the journey.”
“We have paid a terrible price for this progress,” Montalto said in remarks read on behalf of the families. “We call on more states to follow Florida’s lead and create meaningful legislation to make all schools safer.”
The legislation makes major changes to Florida gun laws, including imposing a three-day waiting period on the purchase of any firearm, boosting the minimum age to buy a gun in the state to 21 and banning the sale of bump stocks, a device meant to make semi-automatic rifles fire like automatic ones.
Guns-rights groups, including the powerful National Rifle Association, say the above measures infringe on the rights of gun owners. Many Republicans in both the House and the Senate supported that position and voted against the bill, but the bill passed on bipartisan votes in both chambers and majority of Republicans voted for it.
Like those Republicans who voted for the bill, Scott broke with Florida’s power NRA lobby in signing the bill, making it the first law to toughen gun control in Florida in more than 20 years. And Scott, a Republican and NRA member, did that in an election year when he is expected to announce is candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson.
And less than two after after Scott signed the bill into law, the NRA sued Florida in federal court to block the law.
“We filed a lawsuit against the state for violating the constitutional rights of 18 to 21 year olds,” said Marion Hammer, lobbyist for the NRA in Florida, according to USA Today.
The lawsuit names Attorney General Pam Bondi and Rick Swearingen of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
But earlier, at the bill signing, Scott had scoffed at talk of the bill infringing on rights, saying the bill is more about “common sense solutions” of expanding mental health services and increasing the number of law enforcement officers in schools.
“I’m an NRA member, and I was an NRA member when I became governor. I’m going to be an NRA member when I’m not governor,” Scott said. “I’m sure there are NRA members that agree with this bill, some that don’t agree with this bill.”
Although he signed the bill, Scott continued to be vocal about his dislike about one aspect of it — the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, which permits some teachers and other school employees to carry firearms on school grounds after completing a training program under the direction of a sheriff’s office.
“I’ve heard all the arguments for teachers to be armed and while this bill was significantly changed on this topic, I’m still not persuaded,” he said. “I’m glad, however, the plan in this bill is not mandatory.”
Previous versions of the bill included classroom teachers in the pool of employees who could take the training and carry guns, but that language had been removed by the time the final bill arrived on Scott’s desk.
Instead, only teachers who are in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program or who are current members of U.S. Reserves or National Guard, or are current or former law enforcement officers are allowed to participate in the guardian program. Other school employees, however, are allowed to allowed to participate in the program.
Scott said he has asked lawmakers to redirect the $67 million set aside for the program – named in honor of the football coach who died protecting students – to instead be used to hire more officers.
Scott was joined by Douglas students and parents, gun-control advocates, and Democratic and black legislators in opposing the program, with some members of the latter group speaking about the “unintended consequences” it could have, especially for minority students.
Those same groups also pushed for Scott and legislators to ban assault weapons like the AR-15 that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, a former Douglas High student, allegedly used in the killings. He was indicted on Wednesday on 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for the 17 students who were injured.
Scott reiterated his stance against banning firearms, saying the goal was to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
“Rather than banning specific weapons, we need to ban specific people from having any weapon,” he said.
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was one of the 17 killed, called on other states to follow Florida’s lead.
“What we did here in Florida is incredible: a bipartisan bill in three weeks,” he said in remarks after the press conference. “Its unheard of and we did it. We all came together as one party.”