TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House on Monday approved a bill that would let teachers pack heat at school.
The 71-44 vote was largely symbolic. The proposal is a long shot in the more moderate Senate, where it has stalled in committee.
Still, the vote made one thing clear: The National Rifle Association is a powerful force in the Florida Capitol.
"This is the sixth gun-related bill that we've done this session," said Rep. Lori Berman, a Lantana Democrat. "Meanwhile, background checks have not been discussed. It's no wonder Florida has the nickname the Gunshine State."
The bill (SB 968/HB 753) would let school leaders designate certain employees to carry concealed weapons on campus. In order to be considered, the employees would have to have a concealed weapons license and either military or law enforcement experience.
The proposal would also require schools to hold drills to prepare for active-shooter situations.
Republican Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota first pitched the idea in early 2013, weeks after a shooter killed 20 students and six staff members at a Connecticut elementary school.
The NRA was an early supporter of the bill.
"The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," longtime NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said.
But parent groups, teachers and local school boards have argued that guns should not be allowed on school property.
"[Putting] guns in the hands of school personnel is not the answer to ensuring the safety of all children," said Mindy Gould, who oversees legislative affairs for the state PTA.
Miami Coral Park Senior High social studies teacher Valerie Petersen also had reservations about introducing deadly weapons into classrooms.
"From personal experience, I would feel less safe in a school where guns are present," Petersen said.
Steube's bill didn't make it to the finish line last year.
This year, it prompted a contentious partisan battle on the House floor.
Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, a Maitland Democrat and strong opponent, said the Legislature ought to "let teachers teach."
"If you want to keep children safe, put forth the money from our surplus to hire resource officers," Castor Dentel said. "I know Rep. Steube has worked hard on this, but arming teachers is not the solution. Funding our schools adequately is."
Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, recommended her colleagues address the cause of school violence: student mental health.
"That's where our focus needs to be next session," she said.
But Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said Florida had inadvertently made schools more dangerous by declaring them gun-free zones.
"We are not safe when we create an environment where those who are deranged can go and do reckless damage," he said.
Rep. Ronald Renuart, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, said the bill presented a logical solution to the problem.
"We cannot afford to have resource officers in every school full time," Renuart said. "Yet, we have very willing veterans who have been well-trained who can help us in this situation."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.