Ruth: Legislature’s school safety plan falls short

Published March 6
Updated March 7

Judging from all of the Republican back-slapping, you would have thought the Florida Legislature had just conceived the Magna Carta, the Treaty of Paris and the Louisiana Purchase.

Instead, the school safety legislation nibbles around the edges of enhancing school safety while ignoring the root cause of the murders of 17 students last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

And that is the ready availability of weapons of war such as the AR-15 assault rifle, too often found in the hands of deeply troubled but nevertheless "law-abiding citizens."

To be sure, the Florida Legislature felt pressured to do something, anything, to quiet the growing sense of frustration so articulately expressed by the Douglas High students who traveled to Tallahassee to lobby for some semblance of coherent gun control measures in a state that leads the nation in tone-deafness when it comes to public safety.

And this is the result — for now.

The Florida Legislature’s package of regulations extends the three-day waiting period on the purchase of handguns to all firearm sales. The waiting period would be extended if the required background check on the buyer is not completed. Think of this as the "Duh! Amendment."

The legislation also increases the minimum age to purchase a rifle or shotgun from 18 to 21, creates the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission to study school safety and sets aside $400 million for mental health and school safety programs. Very nice.

Nothing was done to begin the process of banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, which makes the killing so much easier. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 62 percent of Floridians support banning assault rifles and large magazine clips. It doesn’t matter. The National Rifle Association’s chief lobbyist, Marion Hammer, opposes the ban. And thus, she who must be feared still carries the day.

Instead, lawmakers created the muddleheaded program that would pave the way for school employees like principals, custodial staff, librarians and counselors to be armed on campus after completing a 132-hour training program.

But real life is not like a cop show on television where the good guys always have dead aim and the bad guy gets his comeuppance just in time for the closing credits.

If we have learned anything from this nation’s long, bloody history of mass shootings (and goodness knows we’ve had plenty of experience), we know that the crime scene is incredibly chaotic. The sounds of gunfire reverberate, people are screaming and racing hither and yon to escape, adrenalin is pumping. Bodies and bullets are everywhere.

And the Florida Legislature expects that a school librarian with 132 hours of so-called training in a clinical, non-threatening environment is going to know whom to shoot with mere seconds to decide?

What is the legal liability for a stressed school employee who might shoot and kill innocent students caught in the crossfire? What is the potential for a law enforcement officer arriving on the scene to mistake the "guardian" for the school shooter?

What are the legal consequences if the "guardian" is disarmed by a student bent on mayhem?

Is it possible age restrictions on the purchase of weapons might have prevented 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, from obtaining firearms? Perhaps.

But let us not forget "law-abiding" citizens like Omar Mateen, the Orlando Pulse nightclub killer of 49 people, was 29. Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, who took 59 lives, was 64. And Estaban Santiago-Ruiz, who murdered five people in the Fort Lauderdale airport, was 27. None of these "law-abiding" people had any problem getting their hands on all the guns they wanted.

It is a cruel slap in the face to the Parkland victims and survivors to disingenuously name the panel formed to study last month’s shooting rampage the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission. For we all know, should the committee offer recommendations calling for an aggressive ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, their efforts will be met with the sound of chirping crickets.

As for the mental health component of the gun bill, a good place to start spending some of the money would be in Tallahassee, to help legislators address their irrational fear of the NRA at the expense of doing their sworn duty to truly protect the public.

Alas, this is an election year, which only exacerbates the condition.