Florida lawmakers struggling to compromise in gun debate

By the end of Friday, one potential compromise had emerged: instead of arming teachers, train school staff, such as coaches, hall monitors and other personnel, to carry concealed weapons.
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, left, and Senate President Joe Negron, right.
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, left, and Senate President Joe Negron, right.
Published March 3, 2018|Updated March 3, 2018

The Florida Legislature struggled to find support for the political middle Friday, as the Senate postponed for one day a vote on a school safety package that includes provisions opposed by both the National Rifle Association and gun control activists.

The lawmakers' response to the Parkland shooting, SB 7026, would arm some teachers, raise the age to purchase and possess an assault rifle in Florida from 18 to 21, and spend $400 million to strengthen school security and fund mental health counselors.

The proposal is opposed by the gun lobby, which considers the increase in age for all gun purchases and the introduction of a three-day waiting period on all gun purchases an unfair assault on law-abiding gun owners.

But it has also drawn opposition from unexpected corners because of a provision to allow trained teachers to be deputized by law enforcement to carry concealed weapons in the classroom. Gov. Rick Scott, some law enforcement officials, and the legislative black caucus are opposed.

The wide-ranging opposition had legislative leaders scrambling to rework the proposal to find enough votes to narrowly pass the measure through the House and Senate. By the end of Friday, one potential compromise had emerged: instead of arming teachers, train school staff, such as coaches, hall monitors and other personnel, to carry concealed weapons.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the idea came from the governor who has ideas about "non-teaching personnel — coaches, security monitors, administrators and others — perhaps being on the front lines of protecting the schools."

The idea of training and arming teachers was proposed by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and has become a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. Black lawmakers, however, said they will vote against the bill until the provision arming teachers is removed, arguing that it may disproportionately target black students.

But the head of the NRA's Florida chapter, Marion Hammer, said Friday that her organization could live without the program to arm teachers as so-called marshals, as long as whatever lawmakers pass includes more armed law enforcement in schools.

"We're not married to either plan," she told the Herald/Times. "We just want armed security in the school to protect the kids."

The Senate had planned to take up its version of the plan Friday, but with the measure's success in doubt, Senate leaders decided to call the bill back and revise it, rather than push through last-minute changes. The result was legislators spent Friday finding a new middle ground and the Senate will hold a rare Saturday session.

"There are huge differences between the House and the Senate and within the House and the Senate. There is no consensus. The votes aren't there," said Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat, just after Senate leaders announced they were going to delay the vote another day. "They are trying to find something that is in the middle, and it's difficult. The majority of the people we represent don't want a middle ground."

The dilemma has also brought into sharp focus the fact that many legislators are elected for taking a position on the extremes and are not rewarded for moving to the middle because of the way Florida's districts are drawn.

On the right, the NRA has increased its pressure, prompting several legislators to fear being challenged in a primary by a candidate backed by gun rights activists if they support the measure.

On the left, groups like the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, a national LGBTQ political organization, have started running public service announcements critical of the NRA's hard line. Several organizations, including the League of Women Voters, have urged Democrats to hold a hard line in support of a ban on assault weapons.

"For Republicans, especially conservative Republicans, the base is guns and life and, if you abandon the Second Amendment and in any way diminish constitutional rights that are guaranteed under the law, you are basically alienating your base and putting any re-election or upward mobility in jeopardy," said Rep. Joe Gruters of a Sarasota, a long-time Republican party official.

He said the risk is greatest for those who are running for higher office and he predicts that any Republican running for the state Senate or a Cabinet office will oppose the bill because of the gun access provisions.

"It's the fear of having to run against somebody who has the endorsement of the NRA and being outflanked on the right," Gruters said.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, complained that "law enforcement is against, the NRA is against, and you could drive a truck through it and there are members from rural districts in this state that are in a headlock tonight because they're being instructed to vote for it."

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is shepherding the measure through the chambers said the delay give the Senate time to "line up" its bill with a plan that could be passed by the House, where the NRA's influence is strongest.

But he also rejected the notion that legislators were working to appease the interest groups.

"We had a tragedy just a couple of weeks back," he said. "What we should be concerned about is not what group likes what, but if we can put a meaningful safety package together — and pass it — that's going to save lives. And the politics of it be damned."

Scott has proposed his own so-called school safety plan that directs $500 million into increased mental health and school safety officers, raises the age for purchases of assault weapons but does not include a three-day waiting period. The plan also funds bulletproof glass, metal detectors and additional armed school resource officers in every school but, Scott told reporters Thursday: "I want to make sure we have significant law enforcement presence in every school, but I don't support arming our teachers."

Scott was joined Thursday by Ryan Petty, the father of Parkland victim Alaina Petty, who endorsed the governor's proposal and urged legislators to not leave the session that ends next Friday without doing something.

"If this devolves into a gun control debate, we're going to miss our opportunity to get something done," Petty told reporters Thursday. "What's different about the governor's plan is we're focusing on securing our schools. That's what we need to do. I don't want what happened to Alaina to happen to any other children."