Most classroom teachers would be unable to carry firearms under the bill passed Monday by the Florida Senate in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
But there would still be guns in schools.
With Gov. Rick Scott against arming teachers and the legislative black caucus having united against the idea, the Florida Senate amended its bill Monday to exclude classroom teachers from participating.
The overall bill passed 20-18, with Republicans and Democrats coming down on both sides. Republicans who voted no took issue with the bill’s age limit of 21 for all firearms purchases and other fairly light gun control measures, while many Democrats felt that the new limits on the plan to arm school staff did not go far enough.
“Do I think this bill goes far enough? No, no I don’t. But what I disagree with more is letting the great be the enemy of the good,” said state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation. “We have been elected to represent the will of the people and their will is clear — let’s get something done.”
But even other Broward Democrats disagreed with the incremental change supported by Book.
“The mentality that we take what we get and come back next year for me? I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” said state Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale. “Next year, the buses won’t be here, the pressure will be reduced, and the NRA will be omnipotent again.”
The amendment narrowly tailored who qualifies as a classroom teacher to just those defined in state law as “staff members assigned the professional activity of instructing students in courses in classroom situations, including basic instruction, exceptional student education, career education, and adult education.”
Librarians, media specialists, advisers and other school personnel would still be able to carry firearms. Additionally, classroom teachers who don’t teach exclusively — such as teachers who also coach sports — would be allowed to carry. Current service members, current or former law enforcement and teachers in a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program would also be allowed to carry.
“Do not make the mistake of believing that this amendment pulls out guns with teachers,” said state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. “It does not change the fatal flaw of this bill.”
The amendment sponsor, state Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, was one of just two Republicans who has sided with Democrats in trying to get an assault-weapon ban and some other gun-control measures put into the bill. The other is state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami.
“Would I like to see it go further? Of course I would like to see it go further, but this is part of the political environment that we live in,” Garcia said. “I’m doing my part to try to make this better.”
The program would remain optional, with both county sheriffs and school district superintendents having to approve and school staff having the option of participating.
The 105-page bill does far more than potentially arm teachers, though. With $400 million in funding for mental health programs, school resource officers, school safety upgrades and more, many senators who were wary of arming teachers decided there was more good in the bill than bad.
“That’s huge,” said state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who wound up voting against the bill but spoke in favor of the mental health portion. “That’s huge because those children are suffering and our children all across this state in middle schools and high schools are suffering in having mental health crises.”
The Senate version of the bill also renamed the program to arm teachers, previously known as the Florida Sheriff’s Marshal Program, to the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program.
Feis was an assistant football coach at Stoneman Douglas who died during the shooting, reportedly while shielding students from gunfire. The sponsor of the renaming amendment, state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he had spoken with Feis’ widow before offering it.
“There were so many heroes that day. He was not the only one,” Galvano said. “But he stood out in his actions and what he did.”
Of the $400 million in funding, $67 million goes toward the guardian program. Almost $100 million goes to school security upgrades such as reinforced doors and bulletproof glass, with a similar amount going to mental health programs and a similar amount going to school safety, including the potential hire of more police in schools. That’s a number that many Democrats wanted to see increased rather than funding for guns among school staff.
“Let’s not protect kids on the cheap,” said state Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale. “Pay the money, have law enforcement officers there who can do their job.”
With the bill through the Senate, the House is set to amend its version on Tuesday, then pass it Wednesday. Significant differences remain between the two bills, and they must be identical to go to Gov. Rick Scott for signing.
The House makes sheriffs implementing the program a requirement, though its still optional for superintendents and school staff to participate.
The new, watered-down version of the guardian program is different as well.
The Senate version also offers law enforcement a way to legally take people’s guns away if they pose a threat, language that is not in the House version.
All of that has to be agreed upon before Scott can sign the bill.
The bill also includes $25 million for tearing down the Stoneman Douglas building where the shooting took place and rebuilding a new facility, as well as $1 million more to build a memorial to the victims.