By Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) – A year after Florida lawmakers rushed through far-reaching legislation on school safety and gun control in response to the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history, the state is on the verge of reopening the heart-wrenching debate.
Gun control advocates vow to block a recommendation to arm teachers, while conservatives aim to rescind the new gun restrictions. The opposing viewpoints are likely to create some tension when the Florida legislative session begins next month.
“A lot of those nerves are still raw, and there are still a lot of debates about all of these things,” said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who is working on a book about the shooting with a victim’s father.
Massive student protests across the country reshaped the U.S. debate on firearms after a former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people with a semiautomatic rifle in a five-and-a-half-minute shooting spree at the school on Feb. 14, 2018.
Twenty states passed some form of gun regulation last year, including nine states with a Republican governor, according to the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety.
Florida, one of the most gun-friendly states in the country, quickly imposed a three-day waiting period for gun purchases and raised the age limit for buying rifles from 18 to 21.
The law also required schools to place at least one armed staff member or law enforcement officer at each campus and retrofit classrooms with “hard corners,” which give students a place to seek cover from gunfire.
Since then, the sheriff of Broward County was dismissed, a special commission issued a 458-page report to examine what happened as well as make recommendations and schools across Florida have had nearly a year to implement the law’s requirements.
Even so, some schools have yet to fully comply with law.
“Broward County schools are not safer today than they were last year,” said state Senator Lauren Book, a Democrat who sat on the special commission and whose district includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
DEBATE OVER ARMING TEACHERS
Book has been critical of schools for not complying with the requirement of posting one armed defender on each campus, for failing to enact emergency “code red” procedures and the underreporting crime committed by students.
She does not, however, support the commission’s recommendation to allow classroom teachers who pass a 148-hour course to carry concealed firearms. Last year’s law permits some school personnel to carry weapons, but not in the classroom.
Arming teachers would require new legislation, and a leading gun-control advocacy group has made stopping that proposal a top priority.
“We don’t want guns in our classrooms,” said Gay Valimont, volunteer leader of the Florida chapter of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America, which is funded by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was among those killed in Parkland, supports arming the teachers.
“Whoever’s against it, they didn’t have a daughter begging for life on the third floor, hoping that someone was there to save her,” said Pollack, a Republican member of the state school board who is co-authoring the book with Eden.
Emboldened by sweeping electoral victories in 2018, Democratic lawmakers are pushing for even more gun control laws in statehouses nationwide this year.
Families of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas victims are also pushing for a 2020 ballot initiative to ban semiautomatic rifles similar to the one used in the 2018 attack.
Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association’s lobbyist for Florida, said the gun rights group has not taken a position on legislation proposed in the state this year.
But she chastised Second Amendment supporters in the statehouse who “turned their backs on gun owners,” and voted for last year’s measure.
State Representative Mike Hill, a Republican, is sponsoring a bill to repeal the 2018 law’s firearms provisions, saying they were not properly vetted.
“Emotions were running high,” Hill said. “Instead of relying on looking at the facts, (lawmakers) instead let emotional mob rule control the day, and they voted for that measure.”
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by Colleen Jenkins and G Crosse)