With Senate's Narrow Passage, Gun Safety Legislation Now In The Hands Of Florida House

Mar 7, 2018
Originally published on March 6, 2018 7:05 pm

The Florida House has now teed up gun safety legislation for a vote, in response to last month’s mass shooting at a South Florida high school. They agreed Tuesday to take up the Senate version of the bill that narrowly passed Monday. While language was stripped from that bill to exclude most classroom teachers, opponents argue the “compromise” could still arm school staff, like coaches.

Junior Varsity Coach Aaron Feis is one of the 17 who lost his life, in last month’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school mass shooting. He died, after shielding students from multiple bullets.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who knew Feis, says he was always like that.

“Before you even heard how he died, you knew he died putting himself in harm’s way to save others. That’s who he was, running towards danger, while others were correctly running away from danger. Feis had no gun, and no rifle, and yet he ran toward helping students.”

Now, the Florida Senate wants to name the formerly called “school marshal” program after Feis. That’s the controversial provision allowing designated teachers to carry firearms on school grounds, if they are deputized and complete law enforcement training.

Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, the bill’s sponsor, says it’s now called the “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program.”

“He is survived by his wife Melissa and daughter Ariel,” he said, Monday. “I’ve had the privilege of speaking to his wife Melissa, and she is very, very supportive of this program being named after their late husband, and I think it’s very appropriate that we do so. There were so many heroes that day, but he stood out.”

With this change, all reference to the “school marshal” program is now taken out, and it’s now called the guardian program.

Still, even with that change, Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah) wanted to make sure classroom teachers were excluded from the bill.

But, Democrats, like Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami), argue it only applies to those who are “exclusively” teachers, adding it still opens the door to a number of school personnel.

“We’re talking about para-professionals, we’re talking about teaching specialists, we’re even talking about librarians and media specialists, we’re talking about counselors, placement professionals, career specialists school psychologists—all under this could still be carrying a weapon,” he said.

Also, under the new change, classroom teachers who have other roles—like coaching—would not be excluded from participating in the voluntary program. Neither would classroom teachers of a Junior ROTC program.

Still, Garcia—who also doesn’t like the ‘arming teachers’ provision—says this is the best he could do.

“And, this is an attempt to try and limit those that can carry in the classroom,” he said, at the time. “But, at the end of the day, we did not want to narrow it to the point where the coach himself could not have carried in this event. Would I want to see this go further? Of course, I want to see it go further. But, in this political process that we live in, it’s a part of give and take.”

And, Senate President Joe Negron says this change was needed in order to get the bill across the finish line. As it passed 20-18 with bipartisan support, it also had Republicans and Democrats voting against it.

If one person had voted against it, the bill would have failed on a tied vote 19-19.

“I think it was a significant acknowledgement that some members had about expecting teachers to potentially volunteer to be part of security,” he said.  “And, the Governor again publicly has stated his concerns, and I think that amendment was an effort to clarify that we weren’t expecting frontline teachers to take on those additional security duties.  But, it’s certainly appropriate to have administrators and others with security responsibilities.  I think that amendment was critically important in getting to the 20-18 in support of the bill.”

Meanwhile, over in the House, they agreed to start discussions on the Senate bill as a whole Tuesday.

It still includes a bump stocks ban, allows law enforcement to seize weapons from those deemed mentally ill and likely pose a threat, and raises the minimum age a person can buy any gun to 21.

The legislation also includes million of dollars in funds for mental health, a memorial honoring the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school victims who lost their lives, and hardening for the school buildings.

There’s also money included for the sheriff’s offices who want to establish a school guardian program also known as the “arming teachers” provision.

But, some Sheriffs are concerned there won’t be enough funds—something Rep. Kathleen Peters (R-St. Petersburg) asked House bill sponsor Jose Oliva.

“The question I have and it was in the paper regarding my Sheriff’s statement, and so, I’d like you to clarify that if you would. He stated, the $67 million to train the volunteer teachers…if the school board or district or the school decides not to, then a Sheriff’s officer will go in and make sure someone as the deterrent, and his statement was that ‘there was no funding for that.’ Is that statement accurate,” she asked.

“As it stands, the sheriff would be correct,” replied Oliva.

One failed amendment that had more than an hour of debate would have removed the “arming teachers” part. It’s one of about 80 filed—mostly by House Democrats—to change the gun safety bill.

Other amendments included a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, as well as a two-year moratorium on the sale of AR-15s.

That latter amendment actually passed the Florida Senate in a voiced vote, but was later brought up again and rejected.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

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