TAMPA — Some of the biggest names in Tampa Bay law enforcement and education are rallying behind a plan by Gov. Rick Scott to improve safety at schools and keep guns from dangerous people.
A who’s who of local officials stood behind Scott when he came to Tampa on Wednesday to pitch the $500 million plan he unveiled last week in the wake of the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
"We applaud you for not taking knee-jerk or emotional action in light of the Parkland tragedy, but instead developing a common sense approach to keeping our children, our schools, our communities safe," Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister told Scott at the start of a news conference at the Sheriff’s Office.
Among the other officials who stood behind Scott as he outlined the plan were Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter, Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis, Hillsborough School Superintendant Jeff Eakins and Pinellas Superintendent Mike Grego.
Calling the plan a "great start," St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway said he would have been there but had committed to attending an active shooter exercise at St. Petersburg College. Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco also had a scheduling conflict but sent a captain in his place, a spokesman said.
Scott’s plan takes a multi-pronged approach that he said will make schools safer and keep guns out of the hands of mentally unstable people.
It calls for $450 million to put a law enforcement officer in every public school, reaching one officer for every 1,000 students by next school year. The plan increases funding to the Safe Schools program to provide metal detectors, bulletproof glass and steel doors. It requires active shooter drills in all Florida schools by next fall and it calls for a new "See Something, Say Something" hotline, website and mobile app.
On the mental health side, the plan includes tighter gun purchase restrictions for people committed for observation under the state’s Baker Act, and it would prohibit people from possessing or purchasing a firearm if they are targets of a court injunction for protection against the threat of violence. A new program, Violent Threat Restraining Order, would allow police to remove firearms from those who are mentally ill.
The plan also would raise the minimum legal age to buy all firearms to 21 and ban bump stocks, the devices that make semi-automatic rifles work more like fully automatic machine guns.
"We’ve got to keep guns out of the hands of people struggling with mental illness," Scott said.
The mental health reforms are most encouraging to law enforcement officials like Gualtieri, who spent a full day in Tallahassee last week to attend a roundtable talk on school safety and gun reform and to meet with Scott and his Cabinet.
"The tremendous amount of substance that came out of that day exceeded my expectations," Gualtieri said in an interview after Wednesday’s news conference.
Gualtieri has been an outspoken advocate for giving law enforcement more power to remove guns from people when the courts have deemed them a risk to themselves or others. Front-line police officers see the risks and sometimes tragic results of an inadequate system, and the show of support among law enforcement at Scott’s event Wednesday speaks to their desire for reform, Gualtieri said.
"It’s something we’ve been longing for so long," he said.
Under Scott’s plan, people involuntarily committed by a court for treatment because they are at risk of harming themselves or others would be required to surrender all firearms and would lose their right to purchase or possess a firearm until a court hearing.
The plan does not include a call for a ban on the assault-style rifles that are used in so many mass shootings, including the massacre in Parkland. Nor does it include a proposal by lawmakers to give school districts authority to train and arm school personnel.
Scott on Wednesday reiterated his opposition to those approaches. The right answer is not banning specific weapons, he said, but banning specific people from having any weapons.
As for arming school personnel, Scott said: "I believe law enforcement ought to do their job and our teachers ought to teach."
Dugan, Tampa’s chief, agreed.
"I think we’ve already taxed our school system and teachers enough," Dugan said. "I’m more in favor of having trained law enforcement at the school than I am putting another task on school teachers."
Some leaders at the Wednesday news conference were cautious in their support for Scott’s plan, offering praise but noting that logistics and financing still must be hashed out.
"There is a concern about shifting funds away from educational needs and we’ve got to be able to invest in both the educational side and the safety side for our schools," Eakins said.
In a statement sent to the Times later Wednesday, a district spokeswoman said Eakins "does not believe arming teachers is an appropriate step to take."
Republicans in the Legislature have proposed several measures that align with Scott’s plan. These include extending the minimum age requirement of 21 to the purchase of rifles as well as handguns, strengthening background checks, and allowing people to petition a judge to take away individuals’ guns.
Some lawmakers also favor arming teachers and waiting periods for gun purchases.
A House bill would extend to rifles the three-day waiting period now in place for handgun purchases. And on Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee, voting along party lines, approved training teachers to carry guns in class under the direction of local law enforcement — if superintendents or school boards approve. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a similar bill later in the day.
Wednesday’s stop in Tampa allowed the governor, who is widely expected to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, to stand in front of a row of a television cameras in one of the state’s largest media markets.
Scott’s sudden interest in mental health and school safety is a "disingenuous" ploy ahead of his expected Senate bid, said Tim Heberlein, director of political operations for Organize Florida, a group focused on racial and social justice. Heberlein joined a small group of demonstrators who gathered outside the Sheriff’s Office during Scott’s appearance holding signs with slogans such as "Ban Rick Scott" and "Most Pro-gun Governor in Florida History."
"His plan is a disingenuous promise to the families of murdered children that is more interested in supporting his politics and less about supporting our families," Heberlein said.
The news conference also offered a sense of where Chronister stands in a gun reform debate that has created divisions in his own Republican party. The answer: firmly behind the governor who appointed him to the sheriff’s post last year after Sheriff David Gee abruptly retired. Chronister is Gee’s handpicked successor and is running for the sheriff’s seat in an election to be decided this November.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.