Florida Senate votes 20-18 to approve gun restrictions and arming school officials

In a last-minute attempt to reach compromise, the Senate strips most classroom teachers from the proposal to allow school personnel to carry a weapon in schools. Some Democrats remained opposed saying the solution to gun violence is not more guns.
Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley, left, talks with Senate President Joe Negron. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley, left, talks with Senate President Joe Negron. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published March 5, 2018|Updated March 6, 2018

After a lengthy and emotional debate, the Florida Senate narrowly approved a bill to put millions of dollars of state money into school security programs in response to the Parkland shooting, attempting to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill while arming school officials with a first-in-the-nation optional program for school districts.

The Senate passed the bill 20-18, with the chamber's most conservative Republicans joining with the most liberal Democrats to oppose it. The bill was passed after adopting an amendment to appease Gov. Rick Scott and other critics. That change takes some teachers out of the program to train as many as 10 school personnel to carry firearms in every school.

"This bill will make a difference now,'' said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, sponsor of the bill. "When it becomes law, things will start changing."

Democrats voting for the proposal were Sens. Lauren Book of Plantation, Kevin Rader of Delray Beach and Bill Montford of Tallahassee. Republicans opposed were Sens. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, Greg Steube of Sarasota, Dorothy Hukill of Ormond Beach, Denise Grimsley of Lake Placid, and George Gainer of Panama City.

Had one more senator voted no, the entire package would have failed on a tie vote. Some senators said the deciding vote was cast by freshman Sen. Doug Broxson, a Republican from Gulf Breeze, who represents one of the most conservative districts in the state and who has many NRA members as constituents.

Under the amendment, proposed by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, classroom teachers would not be armed if a school district decides to participate in the so-called "school marshal" program established in response to the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. However, other school personnel, including "support staff" (such as custodians, principals, librarians and counselors) who provide some instructional work, current or former servicemen or JROTC instructors, would be able to carry firearms.

"The goal is to make sure that those instructional personnel that are in the classroom cannot participate in the program," Garcia said. "This is an opt-in program … It's dependent on the school district and the sheriff to determine if it participates in the program."

Galvano supported the amendment, adding that it "would eliminate the vast majority of school personnel from participating in that program." It was approved on a voice vote.

The change may have skirted a veto by Gov. Rick Scott, who opposes arming teachers. The bill is opposed by most of the 28 members of the Legislative Black Caucus and a statewide Quinnipiac University poll conducted last week said 56 percent of voters oppose giving teachers firearms and 40 percent support it.

The poll also showed that a majority of Floridians support a statewide assault weapons ban and limits on high-capacity magazines but, faced with the difficult task of defining such a ban in the face of fierce opposition by the gun lobby, Florida legislators rejected those ideas and instead chose to raise the age limits and expand the waiting period.

The bill will next move to the House, where leaders there hope to approve it in time for it to reach Scott's desk before the session ends on March 9.

The close vote revealed the deep rifts created by the proposal that has rocketed through the Legislature since Parkland students and families stormed the Capitol a week after the Feb. 14 tragedy, demanding change.

"My community was rocked. My school children were murdered in their classroom," said Book, who described the emotional visit she had with students as they traveled to the Capitol and vowed that this would be the first step. "I could not live with the choice to put party politics above an opportunity to get something done that inches us closer to the place I believe we should be as a state."

On the other side was Farmer, who voted against the bill because "the arming of teachers is no guarantee we're going to prevent this," he said. But, he warned: "I believe this will be the first and last step. Because 14 months from now, when we're back here, the buses won't be here. The pressure will be reduced, and the NRA will be omnipotent again."

The Senate spent three hours debating the bill on Monday after spending nearly eight hours on Saturday in a rare weekend floor session, rejecting all but one of dozens of Democratic amendments aimed at revising the proposal developed by conservative Republicans.

The proposal injects $400 million into mental health and school safety programs, that includes $18.3 million for mobile crisis teams working with the Department of Children and Families and the schools; $500,000 for mental health first aid training; and $69 million for mental health assistance to school districts. It also raises the age on the purchase of all guns in Florida, ban the purchase and possession of bump stocks and expand the three-day waiting period on handguns to include all rifles and shotguns.

Under the program, the state will make available $67 million to school districts that decide to participate in the "school marshal" program. Another $100 million will be set aside for school resource officers, called Safe Schools funding. But sheriffs on Monday began urging legislators to revise the formulas.

Even before classroom teachers were pulled out of the program, the Florida Sheriff's Association warned that lawmakers were steering too much money into the marshal program and not enough into school resource officers. There are about 4,000 public schools in Florida and to add one school resource officer to every campus would cost about $400 million in total, much less than what is set aside.

Because of the shortfall, lawmakers want to arm existing personnel, after rigorous training. School districts may participate if it is agreed to by the county sheriff or chief law enforcement officer. A school marshal must undergo psychological screening and a physical fitness test, complete 132 hours of firearm safety and proficiency training as well as 12 hours of diversity training, to be aware of racial and other biases.

According to the staff analysis of the House's version of the bill, the cost estimate is "an average of 10 school marshals per school for a total of $36,790." Law enforcement has said that an average school resource officer costs about $100,000, including salary and benefits.

Charter schools do not have to participate in any of the programs unless they want to draw down additional school safety and mental health money.
Galvano said the funds are being kept separate by design.

"We're establishing a new program and we want to make sure it's adequately funded," he said.

The Senate also amended its bill to name the program to create school marshals after former Marjory Stoneman Douglas junior varsity football coach Aaron Feis, who was among the 17 victims of the Feb. 14 shooting.
Feis is a former Douglas High School football player and worked at the school for eight years before he was killed. He is survived by his wife, Melissa, and his daughter Arial, and they support having the program named after him, Galvano said.

"There were so many heroes that day," Galvano said. "He was not the only one, but he stood out in his actions in what he did."

After the amendment was approved, Garcia said he would support the bill that he previously opposed because the money dedicated to mental health services will be "transformative."

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, commended the mental health funding as well but said he could not support the bill.
"I have long been against bringing more guns to a gunfight," he said.

Tampa Bay Times reporters Steve Bousquet and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.