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Were Parkland families used or helped? Distrust grows over gun legislation.

A surprise amendment, disappointed parents, growing public sentiment for gun control, and a divided Democratic caucus have increased tensions as the Parkland legislation moves to the House and Senate floors.
Supporters hold signs as students head back to classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School [Mike Stocker | South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP]
Supporters hold signs as students head back to classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School [Mike Stocker | South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP]
Published Feb. 28, 2018
Updated Feb. 28, 2018

Frustration, distrust and political maneuvering are starting to erode agreement on the Florida's Legislature's response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The fast-moving bills have minor differences but still must win over the support of Gov. Rick Scott, who opposes significant aspects. Both bills — SB 7026 and HB 7101 — will be heard in the respective chambers on Friday.

Tensions are mounting.

Of the 15 Democrats in the Senate, 13 said Wednesday they are threatening to withhold their support until Republicans agree to stronger gun controls.

Two polls of Floridians show public sentiment is strong for tighter gun legislation. Dick's Sporting Goods announced it would do what the Legislature won't: ban the sale of semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines from its stores. And some of the Parkland parents said they fear the tragedy has become a tool for gun rights advocates to introduce guns in the classroom.

"We're being used," said Linda Beigel Shulman, the mother of shooting victim and teacher Scott Beigel, after the last bus of Parkland students and parents left Tallahassee early Wednesday morning.

Parkland parents met for two hours Monday night with House and Senate leaders at a Tallahassee Sheraton to express their concerns about the bills intended to direct $400 million to strengthen school security, improve mental health services, increase the age limit for purchase of semi-automatic rifles and arm trained teachers with concealed weapons.

According to several of the participants at the meeting, incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva of Miami Lakes and other Republican leaders — Reps. Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor and Paul Renner of Jacksonville — discussed the school safety proposals and most of the parents agreed that, while not perfect, they could support them as a first step for reform.

But by Tuesday morning, Oliva had an amendment that changed the most controversial component of the bill — arming trained teachers with concealed weapons. Oliva's amendment required all sheriffs to offer the program, removing the optional component that had been in the proposal presented to parents.

The concept of arming teachers is an idea the National Rifle Association has long supported, and most of the parents who traveled from Parkland opposed it. The House Appropriations Committee passed it along a party-line vote Tuesday and, some of the parents left the meeting convinced they were being manipulated to advance the NRA-favored program to arm teachers, Shulman told the House and Senate Democratic caucus Wednesday.

"We've been very misled," Shulman said. "We were supporting what we were told, then they changed it."

But Oliva said the amendment was needed to make the program more workable, not to appease gun rights advocates.

When he returned from the meeting with lawmakers and parents, he said he heard from other "stakeholders" that there had been a concern that if school districts wanted to offer a program and the sheriff wasn't on board, the sheriff wouldn't be prepared to handle the extensive training required.

"There was a concern about the level of preparedness," he said.

"They were never misled," Oliva told the Times/Herald Wednesday. He conceded later that "the politics around this are toxic, and people are taking advantage of that opportunity. Gun control people don't like it, and NRA people don't like it. It is a compromise bill."

The House's handling of the amendment now has Senate Democrats, buoyed by the recent polls, angry and prepared to withdraw all support for the package and hold out for a plan that is more reflective of what the majority of Floridians support.

"They're using this event and the pain the families are going through as pawns," said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville. "It's divide and conquer."

Of the 15 Senate Democrats, 13 have voted against it and two, Sens. Lauren Book of Plantation and Bill Montford of Tallahassee, have voted for it. Two Republicans, Sen. Greg Steube of Sarasota and Dennis Baxley of Ocala, have also indicated they may not support it because of the provision that raises the legal age for purchasing a gun to 21 and imposes a three-day waiting period on most gun purchases.

Several Senate Democrats said Wednesday they would prefer to kill the bill than to see it move forward with modest gun control and a plan to arm teachers. Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon said he would even support the plan backed by Scott over the one crafted by Republicans, which he said is designed to appease the NRA.

"What they're being offered in gun safety is nothing. What they're being offered in school safety is stuff that this Legislature should have done and they should fight for those things that we have been fighting for years," said Braynon of Miami Gardens.

Kevin Quinn, a Parkland resident who lives next to Douglas High and whose children are in elementary school said he was "disheartened" at Oliva's amendment and while he would prefer the legislation went farther by restricting access to assault weapons and not allowing teachers to carry weapons, "this is a step in the right direction."

He and a handful of parents asked to meet with Oliva Tuesday "to make sure we weren't jumping to conclusions." He said they left the meeting with OIiva with a new conclusion: "This was all part of the impersonal trading for votes.''

He and other Parkland parents have said their greatest fear is that the emerging distrust and disruption will end in stalemate.

"The parents are very afraid of getting nothing done," Shulman told the senators. "They don't understand [the political strategies.] I wouldn't have understood if I wasn't here."

Quinn described it as "a little bit of 'Government 101' for us. He added: "I didn't feel used in the cynical sense. It's beneficial they discussed it and got our feedback. Our major role was to humanize this tragedy in the midst of the political horse trading that occurs."

Did it work?

"What do you think?" Oliva said. "This has proven that a group of students and parents can turn a legislature on its ear."

Miami Herald staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.