Florida House passes gun reform, school safety bill after lengthy debate

 In Politics

The Florida House is pictured. | AP Photo

The gun control measures in the bill, though relatively small compared to the assault weapons ban unsuccessfully sought by Democrats, mark an unprecedented shift in the Florida Capitol. | AP Photo

TALLAHASSEE — The Republican-led Florida House passed a school safety package that includes an unprecedented tightening of gun control regulations on Wednesday. The close vote placed reluctant GOP legislators in a vice between browbeating chamber leadership and the powerful National Rifle Association.

The 67-50 vote was also tough for House Democrats, who earlier in the day decided to take a caucus position against the bill because it would allow for armed educational personnel in schools. Of 76 House Republicans, 57 voted in favor of the bill, with 19 against it. Of the 41 House Democrats, 10 voted yes and 31 voted no. The provision played a major role in the legislation’s near defeat Monday night when the Florida Senate barely passed the bill.

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Called “The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act,” the bill now goes to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature. Legislators say Scott, who expressed reservations about armed teachers before the provision was watered down, is expected to sign it into law.

The gun control measures in the bill, though relatively small compared to the assault weapons ban unsuccessfully sought by Democrats, mark an unprecedented shift in the Florida Capitol, which has been a bastion of gun-rights legislation for decades.

Those who supported the legislation, including the 10 House Democrats, said the $400 million bill was a needed first step in preventing another mass shooting like the one that unfolded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14 when a gunman slaughtered 17 people, including 14 students. The 105-page bill, FL SB 7026 (18R), would allow for the hiring of more school resources officers, physical security improvements to schools, new age and waiting-period limits on shotgun and rifle purchases and more police powers to seize weapons from dangerous people.

Those opposed it were aligned with gun reform groups who chastised Republican lawmakers for refusing to ban tactical weapons like the AR-15 used at the Parkland school.

As the bill was being debated for hours in the House, Scott wouldn’t say if he would sign it.

“When a bill makes it to my desk, I’ll do what they don’t seem to be doing in Washington, I’m going to review the bill line by line,” said Scott, who’s strongly considering a bid for U.S. Senate. “I’m going to be talking to the groups I care the most about right now because it impacted them so much … the families.”

Asked if the House should pass the bill so it could get to his desk so he could read it, Scott demurred. “They should do what they’re doing. They should debate the bill,” he said.

Scott reiterated his opposition to arming teachers, but it’s not clear if he supports the softened provision that essentially prohibits front-line full-time teachers from packing. All other types of school personnel, though, could carry firearms if they qualify.

House Democrats took a caucus position to vote against the bill before Wednesday’s floor session began, but they, too, were divided. The vote: 21-9.

But Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that the Stoneman Douglas tragedy was a call to bridge political and ideological differences.

“What this bill represents to me is a bill that may not pull us to the center, but pulls us together,” state Rep. Kristin Jacobs, a Democrat whose district includes Stoneman Douglas High School, told her colleagues. “Members, the only way we win, is if we vote yes on this bill.”

State Rep. Chris Latvala (R-Clearwater) agreed with Jacobs that partisan politics had no bearing on the bill. “There are votes worth not being here next year, and this is one of them,” he said.

State Rep. George Moraitis (R-Fort Lauderdale) said bipartisan support would show the world Florida’s government can set aside politics.

“If we can’t come together and attack this, how are we going to attack the problems in our communities?” Moraitis said. “Don’t let emotion and anger get in the way of good legislation.”

But Moraitis’ Fort Lauderdale neighbor, Democratic state Rep. Patricia Williams, bristled at his remarks.

“This happens day in and day out for children in my district,” Williams said of gun violence in her minority-heavy Fort Lauderdale district. She said she wanted an assault weapons ban and wasn’t opposed to gun rights. ”I don’t have a problem with you carrying guns. I carry mine,” she said on the House floor.

Before a final vote, state Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Coral Springs), a 1999 graduate of the school who summoned House Republican leaders to the scene to view the bloody aftermath, pleaded with his colleagues to approve it.

“You don’t need to stand with me,” Moskowitz said, fighting back tears. “Push the green button.”

Tensions have been running high over the issue in Tallahassee. A libertarian activist delivered jars of tar and feathers to some senators after the chamber voted for the legislation earlier this week. In the House, racial divisions emerged between Democrats when some African-Americans fumed that white lawmakers were going the extra mile to react to the Parkland shooting when so many Black Caucus members represent communities ripped apart by gunfire on a more frequent basis.

For black lawmakers, the armed personnel language led to prolonged debate about racial disparities in crime and education, the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground lethal force bill, and the shooting death of 14-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.

The Black Caucus, vehemently opposed to more guns in schools, had voted to oppose the bill, though some members disagreed. One of them was state Rep. Kimberly Daniels (D-Jacksonville), who said she felt comfortable any arming of school employees must be approved by local school boards.

“I’m up on this bill because blood is crying from the ground in South Florida,” Daniels said. “I’m not saying this to be against anyone politically, but I’m going to stand for what I believe, and this is about accountability.”

State Rep. Rene Plasencia (R-Orlando) lamented that teachers were not hired to protect and serve like law enforcement. As a teacher and a track coach, he recalled a time a mother promised to hold him responsible if her son was hurt under his watch.

“From that moment on, I realized that was my job,” Plasencia said. “My greatest fear was if one of my kids died on my watch.”

Citing failures at the local, state and national levels to identify or stop the Parkland shooter, state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-Naples) said the armed school personnel provision was “one of the best parts of the bill because when everything else fails — when everything else fails, they’re there to step in and maybe save lives.” He also spoke about a lack of religiousness and an increase in unwed mothers in the U.S., but he stopped short of blaming those phenomena directly on gun violence.

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