Flanked by the parents of Broward County teenagers slain in the nation’s second-worst school shooting, Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed into law a sweeping package addressing mental health, school safety and guns.
Immediately, the National Rifle Association filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge the new law, which raises the age from 18 to 21 and imposes a three-day waiting period for the purchase of rifles and other long guns. The age and waiting-period requirements already apply to buying handguns, but the NRA contends that the new restrictions on rifles are unconstitutional.
Scott’s signature came after weeks of intensely emotional advocacy by students, educators and families of the 17 people shot dead by 19-year-old gunman Nikolas Cruz at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
The parents accompanying Scott on Friday praised the governor and lawmakers for the unprecedented speed in passing the legislation, just three weeks after the Feb. 14 massacre.
“To everyone that’s watching out there, I wish I could tell you that I’m happy. But how could we be happy? He buried his sister, and I buried my daughter. To me, this is a start for us,” Andrew Pollack, accompanied by his son Hunter, told reporters after Scott signed the school-safety package (SB 7026).
Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, was among the 14 students killed, said he and other parents plan “on moving forward and hitting every other state to make sure they follow the lead of Florida.”
Speaking on behalf of the 17 families, Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter, Gina, was killed, called the new law the “beginning of the journey” to prevent “future acts of horrific school violence.”
“We have paid a terrible price for this progress. We call on more states, to follow Florida’s lead, and create meaningful legislation to make all schools safer. This time must be different,” he said.
Scott said the measure addressed all of the issues highlighted by the tragedy.
“Will this bill make a huge investment and dramatically improve school safety, in the hopes of never seeing another tragedy like this again? Will this bill provide more funding to treat the mentally ill? Will this bill give far more tools to keep guns away from people who should not have them? The answer to all three is yes. That is why I am signing the legislation today,” Scott, said, as media from across the nation, crammed into the governor’s office, looked on.
The $400 million package kindled political and ideological divisions for lawmakers already on edge after the heart-wrenching testimony from the shooting survivors and parents of the 14 slain students and three faculty members. The gun-related provisions in the legislation --- or those left out --- overshadowed other elements of the bill.
Democrats were split on what many considered a “poison pill” that allows specially trained teachers and other school personnel, deputized by sheriffs, to bring guns to school. School boards and sheriffs would have to agree to implement the program for it to go into effect. Teachers who work “exclusively” in the classroom would be excluded from the program, but those who have additional duties, such as drama coaches, would be eligible.
For some, the legislation marked an important first step toward stricter gun regulations and a vital response to the Parkland community’s demand for action.
But for others, the “school guardian” program was a deal-breaker.
Calling the program “scary,” black legislators objected that it would endanger minority children who are more likely to be punished at school. And the state teachers’ union asked Scott for a veto, saying the proposal allowing more than 200,000 school personnel to qualify to bring guns on campus would “do more harm than good.”
“We had to make a choice. Compromise is messy, especially when both chambers are controlled by Republicans,” Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat who graduated from the Parkland high school and who was present for the bill signing, told The News Service of Florida.
In addition to the new restrictions on purchasing rifles and other long guns, the new law also bans the sale or possession of “bump stocks,” which allow semi-automatic rifles to mimic fully automatic weapons. And it gives law enforcement officials the ability to seek court orders to seize weapons from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.
“So, in the totality of things, the guardian program is optional. I am hoping a lot of counties don’t opt in, and I am hoping a lot of teachers also don’t opt in. At the end of the day, we’ll be left with a really good gun-control, gun-reform bill in the state of Florida,” Moskowitz said.
But many frustrated Democrats also rejected the proposal because it failed to include a ban on assault–style weapons, such as the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle Cruz used to mow down students and teachers at the school he once attended.
On the other side of the aisle, the new regulations on purchasing firearms --- the first gun restrictions approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature in nearly two decades --- divided the GOP caucus. The NRA’s Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer, a former national president of the gun-rights group, branded those who voted for the proposal as “turncoat Republicans” who “caved to bullying and coercion.”
“(Scott) put his hand on a bible and took an oath to support, protect and defend the Constitution,” Hammer said in a telephone interview Friday. “So Gov. Scott obviously has a hard time keeping his word.”
The federal challenge accuses the state of “violating the constitutional rights of young adults between the ages of 18 and 21 years,” Hammer said.
After the legislation was proposed, Scott repeatedly objected to the three-day waiting period and allowing teachers to be armed.
But the governor said Friday he and others had to compromise, acknowledging that the gun regulations went too far for some and not far enough for others. He said
“I know the debate on all these issues will continue, and that’s healthy in our democracy. People are passionate in their beliefs and they should be. But, we should not insult or disparage each other. We should work together to make our schools safe for our kids. We have a lot of work ahead of us in order to enact these reforms and make our schools safer. This is a time for all of us to come together, roll up our sleeves, and get it done,” he said.