Florida Legislature Passes Controversial Public Safety Bill

TALLAHASSEE – Exactly three weeks after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida Legislature passed a public safety bill which increases gun restrictions and transforms school safety.

Bill CS/SB 7026 was passed by the House on Wednesday 67-50 after an emotional debate that lasted nearly eight hours. It was narrowly passed by Senate two days prior, 20-18.

The bill calls for $400 million to be put towards mental health services and school safety measures. It also raises the age to buy guns from 18 to 21, and bans the sale and possession of bump stocks, a firearm accessory that allows for semi-automatic rifles to fire faster. Additionally, it expands the three-day waiting rule for guns to include shotguns and rifles. These are the first gun restrictions in Florida to have passed in 30 years.

Perhaps the most highly debated aspect of the already controversial bill is the program to arm school employees.

Originally, the bill called for arming teachers under a ‘school marshal’ program. These teachers would undergo a certain amount of training and be the first line of defense against a school shooter. After a lengthy discussion, with teachers, community members and even the governor speaking out against it, legislators amended the bill to make it so that only non-instructional school staff would be armed.

The amendment is referred to as the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, named after a coach who was killed while using his body to shield students in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last month. It would allow districts to choose if they want non-instructional school personnel, such as librarians and principals, to carry firearms in school. These ‘school guardians’ would volunteer to be trained in responding to threats.

In order to be a ‘school guardian,’ the employee must: hold a valid license to carry; complete 132 hours of firearm safety and proficiency training by certified instructors; pass a psychological evaluation; pass a drug test; complete ongoing training; and undergo 12 hours of a diversity training program, which was added after concerns were raised of students of color being discriminated against by school guardians.

Despite having the support of the 17 families whose family members were killed in the incident, the bill is still facing backlash from community members.

Many school districts across Tampa Bay have voiced their opinions on arming any of their staff. Wednesday, before the House gave final passage to the bill, Hillsborough County School Board sent a letter to Florida lawmakers and the Governor expressing their opposition. Pasco and Polk county school boards have also expressed similar stances.

Ariana Ali, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, says although she supports raising the age to purchase guns, more guns in the school is not the answer.

“Guns in classrooms will make students even more uneasy and uncomfortable, and would make situations like what happened at my school worse,” said Ali.

But parents such as Coy Ford disagree. He sees safe zones such as schools as “soft targets” because there is little protection in place if there was an attack.

“Having a properly vetted, trained and armed ‘security force’, similar to commercial aviation, will enhance the safety of our public schools and cause a coward like Nik Cruz to think twice before attacking,” said Ford.

Just recently, there was a shooting at Dalton High School in Georgia. The suspect, in this case, was a teacher, who showed signs of mental illness prior to the incident. In school, however, he was the ‘model teacher’ according to student Chondi Chastain. She argues that arming employees with guns will just make situations worse, as it did in her case.

“If we want (staff) to be armed, I recommend arming them with harmful, yet non-lethal weapons, such as tasers,” said Chastain. She also supports hardening schools with measures such as metal detectors and more resource officers.

There were many versions of the bill, with ideas from others being consolidated into CS/SB 7026.

The bill’s history is lengthy, despite just being introduced by the Rules Committee on Feb. 21. After being submitted, it was referred to the Appropriations committee and approved before moving onto the Senate. There, it was read three times and adopted various amendments before just barely passing to the House, which also read it three times within a short period, finally approving it on the third day of readings.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton helped craft the bill and move it along. He says this bill is a bipartisan issue and the opposition from both sides show it is a compromise.

“We are creating standards,” Galvano said.

Now that Florida legislators have passed the bill, it moves to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk. He has previously indicated that he does not support arming teachers, but lawmakers are hoping the amendment will be a satisfactory compromise.

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