MIAMI - Public and private school principals could designate teachers and other school employees who would carry concealed weapons on campus at all times in an effort to make schools safer, under legislation that won approval Wednesday from a Florida House committee.
It gives principals the option to designate one or several school employees to carry concealed weapons. The designee would be required to complete the same training that bank and courthouse security guards complete in addition to the statewide firearms training. Principals could also decline the concealed weapons option altogether.
Proponents of the bill argued that since the state can't afford to put a school resource officer on every campus, the gun legislation is a commonsense alternative.
"I want my children safe and in our overwhelming desire to protect our children with gun free zones we have inadvertently made them the ideal sterile target for a madman and the unwillingness of people to confront that reality is unacceptable," said the bill's co-sponsor Rep. Dennis Baxley.
But several lawmakers expressed reservations about placing more guns on school campuses.
The bill would allow no one to carry a gun on campus, except the principal's designee who has completed the proper training. That person would be required to carry the firearm on them at all times. The principal will determine whether to tell parents who that person is. Several lawmakers expressed concern that local school boards should not be kept in the dark about whether schools in their districts are armed.
"This bill is a sensationalized attempt to answer the most serious question we face -- the safety of our children," said Colleen Wood, executive director of Save Duval Schools. "We find it sadly ironic that the same Legislature which can't entrust a principal to evaluate a teacher's classroom effectiveness would ask them to select staff to carry a concealed weapon on campus."
Bill sponsor Republican Rep. Greg Steube cited a 2002 Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education study that said most school shootings were stopped by someone other than law enforcement and most incidents lasted 15 minutes or less.
Eight other states allow concealed firearms on school campuses, Steube said.
Steube said he has received numerous phone calls and emails in support of the bill from principals in rural school districts whose schools are 30 to 45 minutes away from a law enforcement response.
The Florida School Boards Association opposes the bill, saying its members want more funds to hire school resource officers in every school and are worried about liability issues.
"You're going to send the wrong message to these students ... so they go back into the community and say, 'Hey it's OK, coach is carrying a gun, principal is carrying a gun, teacher is carrying a gun, why can't I carry a gun, everybody's carrying a gun," said Executive Director Wayne Blanton.
But Republican Rep. Dave Hood Jr. argued it's more of a liability not to arm school personnel and continue to put innocent children at risk for school violence.
Several lawmakers, including Reps. Hood, Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed and Richard Stark, said the bill will have a hard time moving forward unless it has the support of the school boards.
Joy Frank, general counsel, of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, also spoke against the bill.
"I really do not want (my grandkids) to be in a school where someone, no matter how well trained, is carrying a weapon," she said.
But Rep. Ronald Renuart argued parents worried about having guns in the schools "are the same parents that take their children into banks, shopping malls where there's often somebody less trained and less screened to carry that weapon."
Stark warned against a knee jerk reaction after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 first-graders and six educators dead in Newton, Connecticut last year.
"Sometimes you have to step back a little bit before you make a decision of this magnitude," the Democrat from Weston said. "Guns are very powerful. It's not BB guns.
Residents in Jacksonville are divided among the issue. Some agree with the bill, some disagree, and others are uncertain.
Christina Corthell says her military family upbringing and trust in trained professionals points to safer schools for children if the right volunteers -- veterans and former police officers, for instance -- were trusted to have weapons on campus. She thinks students need more than one person on campus with a gun.
"If qualified, yes," she said. "Honestly, if you have a permit, you should be qualified, and there should be stringent rules applied. But I feel the more protection, the better."
"Teachers? Teachers with guns? No. Just think about it," Nicholas Cruel said. "Teachers walk out of classrooms, kids play and run amok. Go into desks. No, especially if teachers are carrying them with them. God forbid if a kid gets bold enough to just take it off the teacher. I wouldn't want that."
"My thing is, if this person is having a bad day, then what?" Lakisa Jones said. "You don't know the mindset of that person to put a gun in their hands and say, 'Protect the school.'"
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