Stoneman Douglas High bill on way to governor after emotional debate

  • Kenya Woodard
  • Post Capital Correspondent
9:50 p.m Wednesday, March 7, 2018 Politics
Florida Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D- Boynton Beach, left, speaks against the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act on House floor, Wednesday, March 7, 2018 before he cast his vote against it. The bill, however, passed the House on a 67-50 vote and will be sent to the governor. (Scott Keeler/The Tampa Bay Times via AP)

In a vote watched by the father of one the students killed in the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, Florida House members on Wednesday approved a bill that is supposed to tighten the state’s gun laws and throw millions of dollars at improving school safety – including the implementation of a “school marshal plan” that would allow some school employees to carry firearms on school campuses.

The 67-50 vote on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act came two days after the bill narrowly passed the Senate, and it now moves to Gov. Rick Scott for his action.

» RELATED: Post coverage of the Broward County shooting

The bipartisan vote — with 31 Democrats and 19 Republicans opposed — also came after eight hours of debate and speeches by House members Wednesday that had House Speaker Richard Corcoran urging them at one point to shorten their remarks so they could get to the vote in time for Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was one of the student victims, to catch a flight. Ryan Petty, father of slain student Alaina Petty, also watched the debate but had to leave before the vote.

In his remarks to the media following the vote, Pollack praised the House and Senate on the “historic” bill that “takes the first step in enhancing safety and security of our schools.”

But more needs to be done, he said.

“Make no mistake: I’m a father, and I’m on a mission,” he said. “I’m on a mission to ensure that I’m the last Dad to read a statement of this kind.”

»RELATED: The latest in Florida political news

Legislators spent the waning weeks of the 2018 session crafting the bill (SB 7026) in response to the Valentine’s Day mass shooting that left 17 dead at the Broward County high school. Former student Nikolas Cruz, 19, confessed to the shootings and was formally indicted Wednesday on 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for the injuries to 17 others.

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.

It also includes money to physically harden schools and initiatives that address improving school safety, most notably a “school marshal program” that sparked a firestorm of opposition from Douglas students and parents, gun-control advocates, and Democratic and black legislators. Those groups opposed bringing guns into the classroom, while black lawmakers also spoke of unfavorable “unintended consequences” it could have, especially for minority students.

“This is too dangerous and there is no room for error in these circumstances,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, who called the bill “scary.”

The marshal program – now named the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, in honor of the football coach who died protecting students – would allow some school employees to carry concealed weapons on campuses after they successfully complete 132 hours of training by the county’s sheriff’s office.

Initially, both the House and Senate bills included classroom teachers in the pool of employees who could take the training and carry guns on campus, but the Senate on Monday excluded most teachers from eligibility and the House followed suit. The final bill being sent to Scott allows only teachers who are in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, current members of U.S. Reserves or National Guard, or current or former law enforcement officers to participate in the guardian program.

Scott, who previously spoke against arming teachers, appeared to have softened his stance somewhat on Tuesday when he called the Senate’s actions “a step in the right direction.”

But when asked if he would sign the bill as is, Scott avoided a direct answer, while getting in a dig at a future political adversary, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Scott is expected to be the Republican nominee for Nelson’s seat in November.

“When the bill makes it to my desk, I’ll do what they don’t seem to do in Washington,” Scott said. “I’m going to review the bill line by line and the group I’m going to be talking to, the groups I care the most about right now, because it impacted them so much, is families.”

On Tuesday, some legislators made it clear that even with classroom teachers removed from the guardian program, they remained uneasy with it and would vote against the bill because of the program.

Rep. John Cortes, a Kissimmee Democrat, said while the bill contains “some good stuff,” the guardian program “destroyed” it.

Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, agreed, saying teachers are “extremely uncomfortable” with putting more guns in schools.

“The reality is we’re putting guns in schools,” Stark said. “It’s a poison pill. We didn’t have to do this. We didn’t need this part of the bill.”

In his remarks, Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, invoked the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting and voters from his district, saying of the latter: “They’re trying to understand, when they look at this bill, what planet we’re on.”

Calling the bill “toxic,” Smith said, “The real reason I’m voting down this bill is because my constituents told me to. They think this is BS.”

Other parts of the bill had critics on the right.

Rep. Jay Fant, a Jacksonville Republican, expressed concerns that gun restrictions in the bill were unconstitutional.

“I can’t believe Cruz can commit such a heinous crime but (we) tell a single mother she can’t buy a firearm to defend her family,” he said. “By pressing ‘no’ today, we can get it right by the Constitution.”

But others urged the chamber to vote in favor, saying the bill will help make schools safer and restrict the mentally ill’s access to firearms with its roughly $400 million worth of initiatives, including money for hardening schools and funding mental health assistance — and the $67 million for the guardian program.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs and a Douglas High alumnus, made an emotional plea that his colleagues “stand with the families” and “push the button” in favor of the bill.

“When we sit here and think how hard it is to vote, I remind myself this isn’t hard,” he said. “Putting your kid in the ground is hard.”

The bill is an attempt to fix “the errors” that were uncovered by the shooting and will now pump much-needed money into hiring more school resources officers among other initiatives, said Republican Rep. Ralph Massullo, a medical doctor, of Lecanto.

“If it saves one life, it’s worth it,” he said. “It promotes life. It protects our children.”

And in the end, 57 Republicans and 10 Democrats came together to pass the bill.

“This bill,” Rep. Rick Roth, R-Loxahatchee, said, “is legislation that’s been made better, tried to do no harm … and it’s balanced and bipartisan.”