Print URL:

Editorial: Scott should veto school safety bill, demand better

Published: March 7, 2018 Updated: March 7, 2018 at 06:39 PM
SCOTT KEELER | Times 20 protesters participate in a Die-In on the fourth floor rotunda of the Florida Capitol, 3/6/17. They continue to push for an assault weapons ban. Lawmakers in the Florida House were debating a gun/school safety bill at the time.

Exactly three weeks after a teenager with a semiautomatic assault rifle massacred 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Florida Legislature on Wednesday sent Gov. Rick Scott its response. Unfortunately, that response falls short of what most Floridians demand and what our students deserve. This is a moment to make an unequivocal statement about our values and our priorities, and the governor should veto this legislation and insist on better.

To be sure, there are positive provisions in this $400 million package. Those include raising the age for buying all firearms to 21 and requiring a three-day waiting period, providing more money for mental health services and increasing school security. A provision that would enable law enforcement to seek a judge’s order to temporarily take away guns from a mentally disturbed person who is a threat to themselves or to others could help prevent the next mass shooting.

Yet those improvements are outweighed by a dangerous plan to secretly arm school personnel such as counselors, librarians, coaches — and some teachers. Allowing more guns in schools held by anyone other than uniformed law enforcement officers is opposed by teachers, Tampa Bay school districts and most voters. It’s also opposed by black lawmakers who legitimately fear children of color could be particularly at risk in a violent situation. A last-minute revision that renames this program and exempts many teachers from participating may help solve a political problem for the governor, who has opposed arming teachers. In practice, it would be just as risky and unacceptable.

Supporters of secretly arming school employees are the same lawmakers who deride the concept of gun-free zones. They argue it will be up to the county sheriff to decide whether to create a training program and up to the local school district to decide whether to deploy armed staff. There are no caveats that can justify such an irresponsible approach. But if Republicans were sincere about local control, they would not have rejected efforts by Democrats to let local school districts decide whether $67 million set aside for training and arming staff could be shifted to hiring even more school resource officers.

There is too much emphasis in this legislation on transforming schools into armed fortresses and not nearly enough on meaningful gun control. The Republican-led Legislature rejected efforts to ban semiautomatic assault rifles and large magazines like those used in the Douglas High shooting in Parkland and other mass killings. It did not close the so-called gun show loophole that enables gun buyers to avoid background checks if they purchase a firearm from unlicensed sellers. There is plenty of room to support both the Second Amendment and reasonable gun control. The National Rifle Association already opposes the legislation because it would raise the age for buying any gun, so why are lawmakers so afraid to do more?

This is not a bipartisan response to a tragedy that has saddened and angered Floridians. Republicans rejected every meaningful attempt by Democrats to improve the legislation. The leadership has stripped away projects in the state budget from lawmakers who have dared to vote their conscience and oppose the school safety package. If just one more senator had voted against the legislation, it would not have passed and it would have been improved.

It is understandable families of the Douglas High victims decided at the last minute to support this legislation. They want to see something positive come from the unimaginable loss of their loved ones. And there are portions of the package that are broadly supported, such as increased mental health spending and more school resource officers. Yet it simply is not enough.

The scope of the reforms should match the magnitude of the challenge of protecting our children. This is a moment when Floridians are focused following a terrible tragedy and demanding meaningful gun control. It is a moment that may not come again until there is another mass shooting that could have been prevented if the gun-obsessed Florida Legislature had listened this time. The governor should listen. Scott should veto this bill, call the Legislature into special session later this month and insist on a more vigorous approach.