TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers have a plan to keep kids safe at school: allow teachers to pack heat.
The controversial proposal won the support of a Senate panel on Monday, despite strong opposition from parent groups, school boards and the statewide teachers union.
It is one of several high-profile gun bills gaining traction in the Florida Legislature this year — and a sign that the National Rifle Association is once again flexing its muscle in Tallahassee.
Other NRA priorities: extend "stand your ground" protection to people who fire a warning shot; let tax collectors accept applications for concealed weapons permits; and protect a child's right to chew pastries into pretend pistols.
There will be some resistance to the pro-guns agenda.
On Monday, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the national civil rights leader, and several hundred supporters marched to the Florida Capitol, calling for the repeal of the "stand your ground" self-defense law.
Sharpton said the protest marked the beginning of a "spring and summer offensive" that would take place both at the Capitol and in legislative districts.
"We can't talk about making guns more available, we ought to be talking about making them less available," Sharpton said. "The legislation they're doing, I think, is deadly."
The NRA has long been a powerful force in Tallahassee, partly because of its ability to mobilize voters at election time. But in the aftermath of the 2012 school shooting in Connecticut, the association pursued a more modest legislative agenda.
The NRA has re-emerged in time for the 2014 elections, putting its considerable heft behind an array of new gun-related proposals.
"There are a number of bills that we support," said veteran NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer. "But just because we support it, doesn't mean that it was our idea."
One bill (SB 544, HB 523) would allow tax collectors to accept applications for concealed weapons permits.
Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano said he supports the bill because tax collectors are well suited to help the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services with applications.
He doesn't believe the proposal will cause a spike in the number of Floridians carrying concealed weapons. "They're going to apply anyway," he said.
The NRA is also backing a proposal that would prevent children from being disciplined for playing with simulated weapons in school. It was inspired by a Maryland school that suspended a student for chewing his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun.
A separate schools-related proposal (SB 968, HB 753) would allow designated school employees to carry concealed firearms.
The gun-toting teachers would need to have either a valid concealed carry license, or a background in the military or law enforcement. They would also need to complete a state-developed training course.
The idea was proposed last year, but it stalled in the Senate.
The bill sponsor, Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, said the upper chamber needed time to ensure the proposal was not a knee-jerk reaction.
"In the interest of maintaining a safe learning environment for all of our schoolchildren, this bill gives school principals and administrators an option of having trained and approved personnel to carry firearms on a school campus," Hays said.
Said the NRA's Hammer: "The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
But Wayne Blanton of the Florida School Boards Association said the policy would send the wrong message to students.
"We do not need teachers, or in this case, volunteers in our schools, carrying weapons," Blanton said. "Our teachers and our principals are role models for impressionable young people. If our teachers and our principals and our coaches carry weapons, why won't our kids (do the same)?"
The bill passed by a 5-2 vote, with the two Democrats on the panel voting in opposition.
Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado said she believed the lawmakers' motive for supporting the bill was clear.
"School districts aren't asking for these things," Regalado said. "This is to get close to the NRA. It's a fundraising technique, the same as the Pop-Tart bill."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]