TALLAHASSEE — The Republican-led Florida House passed a school safety package that includes an unprecedented tightening of gun control regulations on Wednesday. The close vote placed reluctant GOP legislators in a vice between browbeating chamber leadership and the powerful National Rifle Association.
The 67-50 vote was also tough for House Democrats, who earlier in the day decided to take a caucus position against the bill because it would allow for armed educational personnel in schools. The provision played a major role in the legislation’s near defeat Monday night when the Florida Senate barely passed the bill.
Called “The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act,” the bill now goes to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature. Legislators say Scott, who expressed reservations about armed teachers before the provision was watered down, is expected to sign it into law.
The gun control measures in the bill, though relatively small compared to the assault weapons ban unsuccessfully sought by Democrats, mark an unprecedented shift in the Florida Capitol, which has been a bastion of gun-rights legislation for decades.
Those who supported the legislation, including several House Democrats, said the $400 million bill was a needed first step in preventing another mass shooting like the one that unfolded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14 when a gunman slaughtered 17 people, including 14 students. The 105-page bill, FL SB 7026 (18R), would allow for the hiring of more school resources officers, physical security improvements to schools, new age and waiting-period limits on shotgun and rifle purchases and more police powers to seize weapons from dangerous people.
Those opposed it were aligned with gun reform groups who chastised Republican lawmakers for refusing to ban tactical weapons like the AR-15 used at the Parkland school.
As the bill was being debated for hours in the House, Scott wouldn’t say if he would sign it.
“When a bill makes it to my desk, I’ll do what they don’t seem to be doing in Washington, I’m going to review the bill line by line,” said Scott, who’s strongly considering a bid for U.S. Senate. “I’m going to be talking to the groups I care the most about right now because it impacted them so much ... the families.”
Asked if the House should pass the bill so it could get to his desk so he could read it, Scott demurred. “They should do what they’re doing. They should debate the bill,” he said.
Scott reiterated his opposition to arming teachers, but it’s not clear if he supports the softened provision that essentially prohibits front-line full-time teachers from packing. All other types of school personnel, though, could carry firearms if they qualify.
House Democrats took a caucus position to vote against the bill before Wednesday’s floor session began, but they, too, were divided. The vote: 21-9.
But Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that the Stoneman Douglas tragedy was a call to bridge political and ideological differences.
“What this bill represents to me is a bill that may not pull us to the center, but pulls us together,” state Rep. Kristin Jacobs, a Democrat whose district includes Stoneman Douglas High School, told her colleagues. “Members, the only way we win, is if we vote yes on this bill.”
State Rep. Chris Latvala (R-Clearwater) agreed with Jacobs that partisan politics had no bearing on the bill. “There are votes worth not being here next year, and this is one of them,” he said.
State Rep. George Moraitis (R-Fort Lauderdale) said bipartisan support would show the world Florida's government can set aside politics.
“If we can’t come together and attack this, how are we going to attack the problems in our communities?” Moraitis said. “Don’t let emotion and anger get in the way of good legislation.”
But Moraitis’ Fort Lauderdale neighbor, Democratic state Rep. Patricia Williams, bristled at his remarks.
“This happens day in and day out for children in my district,” Williams said of gun violence in her minority-heavy Fort Lauderdale district. She said she wanted an assault weapons ban and wasn’t opposed to gun rights. ”I don’t have a problem with you carrying guns. I carry mine,” she said on the House floor.
Before a final vote, state Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Coral Springs), a 1999 graduate of the school who summoned House Republican leaders to the scene to view the bloody aftermath, pleaded with his colleagues to approve it.
"You don’t need to stand with me,” Moskowitz said, fighting back tears. "Push the green button.”
Tensions have been running high over the issue in Tallahassee. A libertarian activist delivered jars of tar and feathers to some senators after the chamber voted for the legislation earlier this week. In the House, racial divisions emerged between Democrats when some African-Americans fumed that white lawmakers were going the extra mile to react to the Parkland shooting when so many Black Caucus members represent communities ripped apart by gunfire on a more frequent basis.
For black lawmakers, the armed personnel language led to prolonged debate about racial disparities in crime and education, the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground lethal force bill, and the shooting death of 14-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.
The Black Caucus, vehemently opposed to more guns in schools, had voted to oppose the bill, though some members disagreed. One of them was state Rep. Kimberly Daniels (D-Jacksonville), who said she felt comfortable any arming of school employees must be approved by local school boards.
“I’m up on this bill because blood is crying from the ground in South Florida,” Daniels said. “I’m not saying this to be against anyone politically, but I’m going to stand for what I believe, and this is about accountability.”
State Rep. Rene Plasencia (R-Orlando) lamented that teachers were not hired to protect and serve like law enforcement. As a teacher and a track coach, he recalled a time a mother promised to hold him responsible if her son was hurt under his watch.
“From that moment on, I realized that was my job,” Plasencia said. “My greatest fear was if one of my kids died on my watch.”
Citing failures at the local, state and national levels to identify or stop the Parkland shooter, state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-Naples) said the armed school personnel provision was “one of the best parts of the bill because when everything else fails — when everything else fails, they’re there to step in and maybe save lives.” He also spoke about a lack of religiousness and an increase in unwed mothers in the U.S., but he stopped short of blaming those phenomena directly on gun violence.
Republicans faced an onslaught of pressure from groups like the NRA, which sent emails urging constituents to call representatives who were being strong-armed by House leaders. State Rep. Tom Leek (R-Orlando) said he received calls from constituents who told him to move if he supports the bill.
“I care very little about what other people think,” Leek said. “The fact that someone would give their vote away to a caucus position — this is too important.”
Family members of the Stoneman Douglas victims sent a letter on Tuesday to lawmakers imploring them to support the bill. The fathers of two of the teenage girls killed in the attack spent hours meeting with reluctant House Republicans to explain its provisions. The fathers found that many lawmakers had not fully read the bill.
As the House debated the bill, two Parkland fathers met briefly with the press outside the chamber to urge lawmakers to pass the legislation.
“If anyone’s voting against, they have a different agenda than what their community has, which is protecting our kids and making them safe,” said Andrew Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter Meadow was killed. “Whoever’s voting no, doesn’t have the interests of the kids in the community as their best interest.”
Asked what type of agenda he meant, Pollack said he didn’t know because he “could not comprehend” a no vote.
Ryan Petty, father of 14-year-old Alaina, said “nothing in life is ever perfect” but that the benefits of the bill outweighed the bad parts.
Polling suggests the legislation will be far more popular than the vote in the Legislature. By wide margins, Florida voters support banning bump-fire stocks and adding waiting periods and age limits to long gun purchases, polls show. Voters, however, don’t favor arming teachers.
The polls show, however, that Republican voters are generally least-inclined to support gun control and do back arming teachers – a provision tacked in the legislation to placate the NRA and GOP primary voters.
The debate lasted for so many hours — more than eight — that Petty had to catch a flight and Pollack opted to miss his plane back home.
In a sign of just how important guns are in a GOP primary, Florida Attorney General candidate and state Rep. Jay Fant (R-Jacksonville) has made firearms central to his candidacy. On the House floor, he said Wednesday that the bill was unconstitutional because of the ban on people under 21 from buying a long gun.
“I just can’t imagine Nikolas Cruz can commit such a heinous crime,” he said, “and then as a result we tell, potentially, a 20-year-old single mother living alone that she cannot purchase a firearm to defend herself in the state of Florida. This is not constitutional on its face.”
The bill offers stricter gun control measures by raising the age limit for purchases from 18 to 21 and requires a three-day waiting period for the purchase of all weapons. There's also a ban on bump stocks, which make the rapid shooting easier.
The bill also includes money for school districts to hire more school resource officers, and programs that beef up mental health services. There is a provision that expands the powers of law enforcement by allowing them to temporarily suspend someone's gun rights if they are admitted for psychiatric evaluation under the state Baker Act. They could also petition a court to extend the suspension of powers over the 72-hour life of the Baker Act to 60 days.
Perhaps the most controversial provision is the Aaron Feis Guardian Program, which would deploy highly-trained school employees under the direction of the sheriff in each county.
The legislation is sponsored by state Rep. Jose Oliva (R-Miami Lakes).
While most of the attention on the bill has focused on armed teachers and the waiting periods and age limitations for long gun purchases, lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the debate have said little about the expansion of police powers to seize weapons from people deemed a threat by either police or a court.
In cases where police involuntarily commit someone deemed a threat to himself or others, officers “may seize and hold a firearm or any ammunition” if the person in question has made a “credible threat of violence.” The guns and ammo can be returned within 24 hours of the person being discharged from a holding facility. Police can, however, hold on to the weapons and ammunition for seven days in some cases. The bill also generally bans firearm possession by those judged “mentally defective” or who have been committed to a mental institution.
Additionally, the legislation creates the “Risk Protection Order Act” that allows police to petition a court to allow law enforcement to temporarily seize ammunition and guns for up to a year from a person who “poses a significant danger of causing personal injury to himself or herself or others.”
Under this risk protection order section of the bill, a judge can grant the order based on a variety of criteria, including whether the gun owner has committed or threatened an act of violence in the prior year, is a stalker or has been convicted, had adjudication withheld or pleaded no contest to a domestic violence charge. In emergency situations, police can seize the weapons without a full hearing, which would be conducted after the fact.
As the legislation was being debated on the Florida House floor, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio announced he would carry legislation that would mirror Florida’s proposed “gun violence restraining order.”
In South Florida, Cruz, the accused Parkland shooter, was indicted Wednesday on 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.