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A Divided Florida Senate Advances Measure That Could Allow More Teachers To Carry Guns

Apr 23, 2019

An effort to let school districts choose whether to allow more classroom teachers to carry guns has cleared the Senate.

The broader bill incorporates recommendations from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission, which was tasked with examining the response and lead up to last year's Valentine’s Day School shooting in Parkland.

Teachers in Florida school districts that have already opted into the program are allowed to carry guns, but only if they’re not just dedicated to the classroom.

Republican Senator Manny Diaz’s bill expands the provision to make all teachers eligible for the so-called guardian program. Diaz notes it’s only a small part of the bill, but it’s played an outsized role in the debate.

“This bill does not arm one single, solitary teacher," he says. "What this bill does is provide the 67 school districts, 67 communities in this state, the ability to do what they need to do to protect our kids.”

Some 25 counties have implemented the guardian program in apart.  Diaz says another 14 have expressed interest. The Miami senator says not every school can have a police officer or sheriff's deputy on hand, and providing the option to have a teacher stand in their stead gives districts flexibility.

“Those that have law enforcement 20-25 minutes away need another option to protect those kids. And I am not going to stand on this floor and prevent them from having that option. While I represent a particular community, we’re passing state statute here. And it’s our obligation to provide the option to every single community across the state.”

Participating teachers would have to meet training requirements and get more in-depth background checks. But the plan still doesn’t sit well with opponents, largely teachers and students, who say the approach to school safety is wrong.

“Sentries protect from the outside. And our teachers deserve to be protected as well. And I think we have to consider, where are these firearms kept?" says Democratic Minority Leader Audrey Gibson. "What impression are we giving to our students? If we really want to create the safest environment at every level at every school…we should protect from the outside in.”

The bill represents the work product from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission, which outlined several recommendations in its more than 440-page report to the state.

Sen. Lauren Book served on the Commission and helped craft those recommendations. During Tuesday's floor debate, she urged lawmakers to “put reason before rhetoric."

“By the time former Deputy Peterson arrived outside of building 12 at 2:24, 24 people had been shot on the first floor of the building," Book recounted in an emotional testimony. "It only took 98 seconds to shoot 24 people. That’s over half the members in this chamber. Eleven of the 24 died within seconds. That’s a third of us.”

Within three minutes of the attack, 34 people had been shot. Half of them died. And the gunman was able to reload five times. Book wonders what would have happened if someone had intervened at least once in those brief moments.

Yet despite her role on the commission, Book did not vote for the bill.

"I must, at the urging of my community, vote no today. But it’s an exceedingly painful vote," she said.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, was the lone Republican to do the same. 

The proposal isn’t just about whether to allow more teachers to carry guns. It also expands mental health treatment for students, requires schools to provide more accurate information on crime, and puts tighter controls in place for tracking students with disciplinary problems.

Now that the Senate has approved the measure, it heads to the House where it is likely to be approved.

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