Classroom gun bill advances Senate
Published: Monday, March 10, 2014 at 8:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 10, 2014 at 8:31 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Military veterans and former law enforcement officers would be able to carry guns in Florida classrooms if they receive additional training and authorization from school leaders under legislation that passed a state Senate committee Monday.
Many Democrats and school district officials oppose the bill, sponsored by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota. But Republican lawmakers supported it, arguing it could help protect children from attacks such as the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn. It cleared the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on a 5-2 party-line vote.
Steube, who filed similar legislation last year that did not get any hearings in the Senate, said the proposal has more momentum this year.
“I’m very pleased the bill seems to be moving in both chambers,” he said.
But the legislation still has a long road in the Senate, with three more committees to pass. Even some GOP lawmakers who voted to advance the bill Monday said they might not support it later without changes.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said he is concerned that principals would have authority to decide who can carry a gun at their schools, not district officials or the school board.
Simmons questioned the ability of some principals “to make these kinds of decisions” and added he wants to ensure the people who are chosen “understand and respect the awesome power that they have.”
Steube said after the hearing that he may amend the legislation to give school districts authority to set broad policies regarding who can carry weapons, but he noted there are extensive training requirements in the bill, and school districts do not have to participate.
“We’re not pushing this down on people,” he said. “We’re giving this as an opportunity for principals and superintendents to take advantage of it if they want to.”
The legislation requires 40 hours of school safety training, eight hours each year of active shooter training and four hours of annual firearm proficiency training. Military veterans would have to be honorably discharged and have no firearms-related infractions. Former law enforcement officers must have left their position “in good standing.”
The military and law enforcement requirements in the bill were added this year. A previous version of the legislation allowed any trained school employee to carry a gun if a principal signed off, something Steube changed after speaking at school safety forums over the summer and listening to the concerns of district officials.
“I understand people have reservations about guns in general,” said Steube, adding that he believes the legislation could prevent another massacre.
School shootings often occur in a matter of minutes and law enforcement may not be able to respond quickly enough, he said, especially in rural areas.
“I feel very passionate about this issue,” Steube said. “I think Florida really needs to do something as it relates to school safety.”
The legislation faced equally passionate opposition. Eight people spoke against the bill, including a teacher, a religious leader and a Leon County commissioner.
“We need to look at the probabilities involved here,” said Tallahassee resident Bishop Holifield. “More guns in more hands means it’s more likely that lives will be taken.”
Florida Association of District School Superintendents Executive Director Wayne Blanton said his group opposes the bill and added that lawmakers should be doing more to fund uniformed police officers in schools.
“When it gets appropriations time I hope you can think about us a little bit and school safety,” he said.
The legislation is scheduled to be heard in its first House committee Wednesday. It passed two committees in the House last year.
Even if the bill clears the Legislature and is signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, there likely will not be any changes in many districts. Sarasota Superintendent of Schools Lori White said recently that she only wants uniformed police officers carrying guns in local schools.
“Our feeling is that, in terms of having weapons on school campus, it needs to be in the hands of law enforcement,” she said. “Active law enforcement.”