In response to a deadly Florida school shooting last month, the state’s Senate narrowly passed a bill Monday that would create new restrictions on rifle sales and allow some teachers to carry guns in schools.
The 20-18 vote came after three hours of often emotional debate. Support and opposition crossed party lines, and it was clear many of those who voted for the bill weren’t entirely happy with it.
“Do I think this bill goes far enough? No! No, I don’t!” said Democratic Sen. Lauren Book, who tearfully described visiting Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after 17 people were fatally shot on Valentine’s Day.
She also would have liked a ban on assault-style rifles, like many of the students who travelled to the state capitol to ask lawmakers to go even further to stop future mass shootings. But Book said she couldn’t let the legislative session end Friday without doing something.
“My community was rocked. My school children were murdered in their classrooms. I cannot live with a 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,” she said. “This is the first step in saying never again.”
Earlier Monday, families of the 17 Florida high school massacre victims called on the state’s legislature to pass a bill they believe will improve school security.
Reading a statement outside the school, Ryan Petty implored legislators to pass Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to add armed security guards, keep guns away from the mentally ill and improve mental health programs for at-risk teens. Scott also opposes arming teachers.
“We must be the last families to lose loved ones in a mass shooting at a school. This time must be different and we demand action,” said Petty, reading from the group statement.
Petty’s 14-year-old daughter, Alaina, was killed in the Feb. 14 shooting, along with 13 schoolmates and three staff members.
If just one more senator voted no instead of yes Monday evening, the bill would have died.
Republicans and Democrats alike said there were parts of the bill they didn’t like. Democrats didn’t like the idea of letting teachers carry guns, even if the bill was amended to water down that proposed program. And many pro-gun rights Republicans didn’t like the idea of raising the minimum age to buy rifles from 18 to 21 and to create a waiting period on sales of the weapons.
The Senate amended its bill to limit which teachers could volunteer to go through law enforcement training and carry guns in schools. Any teacher who does nothing but work in a classroom would not be eligible for the program, but teachers who perform other duties, such as serving as a coach, and other school employees could still participate. Other exceptions would be made for teachers who are current or former law enforcement officers, members of the military or who teach in a Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps program.
The bill would name the program for slain assistant football coach Aaron Feis, who has been hailed as a hero for shielding students during the school attack. The 37-year-old graduated from Stoneman Douglas in 1999 and worked mainly with the junior varsity, living in nearby Coral Springs with his wife and daughter. Republican Sen. Bill Galvano said he asked for and received the approval of Feis’ family to name the program for him.
Galvano, who took the lead on the bill, said he recognized that there was bipartisan opposition to it but said that was a good thing.
“You know what that means in my experience? That we’ve gotten somewhere,” he said. “We’re hitting nerves. We’re going into areas that may not be our comfort zone.”
And he said the bill will make a difference. In addition to the gun restrictions and arming some school personnel, it would create new mental health programs for schools, improve communication between schools, law enforcement and state agencies, create a task force to look at mistakes made during mass shootings nationally and then make recommendations on how to continue to improve law, and establish an anonymous tip line where students and others can report threats to schools.
“This bill will make a difference now. When it becomes law, things will start changing,” Galvano said. “We listened and we’re trying. We’re trying hard, we don’t have all the answers but we are giving it our best and we will keep giving it our best.”
The bill now goes to the House, which has a similar bill still waiting for consideration by the full chamber. The annual 60-day session is scheduled to end Friday.