Florida governor to meet with Parkland parents as decision looms

Jacksonville-area lawmakers explain why they decided to support, reject plan

By Kent Justice - Anchor/reporter, Mike Vasilinda, Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Rick Scott will meet Friday with the families of victims of last month’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, raising expectations that he will sign into law a sweeping school-safety measure that sparked veto requests from critics on both ends of the gun-control spectrum.

The proposal (SB 7026) would raise the minimum age from 18 to 21 and require a three-day waiting period for people purchasing rifles and other long guns, requirements that already apply to buying handguns. The measure would ban the sale of “bump stocks,” which allow semi-automatic rifles to mimic fully automatic weapons.

It would also create a so-called guardian program enabling school employees and many teachers to carry handguns if they go through law enforcement training and their school districts agree to participate.

Most of the Duval County delegation voted no, based on raising the purchase age for all guns to 21. Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, explained that for her, it was about hearing people in her district who have the most experience and opposing the guardian program.

"I was relying on the experts back home. And my experts were the school board members ... Sheriff Mike Williams. And they were saying, 'No.' This bill was just not the bill that we needed to pass, and so I relied on them. And that's why I took a strong no to it," Davis said. "To be honest with you, when we started this ... I was for the bill."

Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, R-St. Johns County, said the bill is not perfect, but she supported it for the good and hopes that outweighs what some may perceive as "bad."

"I think it was a very difficult issue. I think we're still talking past each other on very critical elements," Stevenson said. "It's not everything. And you heard a lot of people talking about that. It's not everything, but it is a significant step and I hope that the governor will pass," Stevenson said. "And as we get a better understanding, we can appreciate the hard work that went into this bill in a very short time."

The Florida Senate narrowly passed the bill Monday. Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Johns and Flagler counties, said changing the age for purchasing firearms to 21 was a concern for him too, but it was a "judgment call."

"I voted yes," Hutston said. "It's just that purchase age. To me, I thought that was a good, healthy thing ... having some background checks as well so that people who are mentally ill can't get these guns and have to go through stronger background checks with the process. So that's what it ultimately came down to for me."

Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Clay County, seemed to agree, explaining that the new rules are a start, not an end, to the process.

"I definitely think we needed to act. We definitely acted in the best way we can. I think we will continue to revisit not only this legislation, but issues moving forward and see how we can strengthen and improve our school safety," Cummings said. "This was a huge effort to do that, to make our children throughout Florida safer."

As lawmakers from the Northeast Florida area explained why they either decided to support or reject the plan, cameras captured an impromptu meeting Thursday with Scott and Andrew Pollack, the father of 18-year-old Meadow who was among those killed at the Parkland school.  

"Since my daughter was murdered, I'm just on a crusade and I got the power of a lion going through me and I'm not going to stop," Pollack said.

Attorney General Pam Bondi was also there.

"Am I thrilled with the exact language of the legislation? No. No one is," Bondi said. "Do you know what that’s called? Compromise.”

When asked if he had any advice for the governor, Pollack said, “He’s a smart enough guy. He doesn’t need me to tell him what to do next.”

The governor has 15 days to act on the legislation, but lawmakers believe he will act much sooner. Scott has so far sidestepped questions about what he will do.

“I’ve been clear. I don’t believe we should be arming teachers. I believe we should be increasing our law enforcement presence at all of our school," Scott said.

The new gun restrictions have infuriated the powerful National Rifle Association, in a state the gun-rights organization has used for years as a testing ground for model legislation.

Meanwhile, teachers, parents, black lawmakers and other critics are blasting the bill for a controversial provision that would allow specially trained school personnel, including teachers, to bring guns to schools. Teachers who “exclusively” perform classroom instruction would be excluded from the program, meaning teachers who have other duties, such as drama coaches, would be eligible to participate.

The Florida Education Association on Thursday asked Scott to veto the measure, saying more than 200,000 school employees could qualify to carry firearms, which would “do more harm than good.”

“Our teachers and other school employees are ready to fiercely defend our students but none of them should ever have to choose between shepherding students to safety or confronting an armed assailant where they are sure to draw fire towards the very students they are trying to protect,” Joanne McCall, president of the teachers’ union, wrote in a letter to the governor.

NRA Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer on Thursday also sent out an “emergency alert” to supporters, urging them to contact Scott and demand a veto.

Hammer, a former national president of the gun-rights group, accused House leaders of forcing Republicans to support the measure, which the House passed Wednesday in a 67-50 vote. Just 19 of the chamber’s 77 Republican members opposed the bill, following what Hammer called “one of the most despicable displays of bullying and coercion.”

The proposal “violates Second Amendment rights and punishes law-(abiding) citizens for the actions of a mentally ill teenager who murdered 17 people after Florida officials repeatedly refused to get him the help he needed,” Hammer wrote, referring to 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who is charged with murdering 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

The $400 million school-safety package includes money for early mental-health screening and services, school resource officers, school-hardening grants, and $25 million to raze and rebuild the freshman building where the shooting spree occurred. The bill also includes a commission that will investigate the events leading up to and response to the attack by Cruz, who had a lengthy history of mental-health problems. The commission will also make recommendations.

Scott has repeatedly said that he objects to the three-day waiting period in the legislation and opposes “arming teachers,” but would not say whether he intends to sign the bill into law.

But the governor telegraphed what action he might take on the measure, which the 17 families said they support and asked him to sign.

“I’m going to review the bill line-by-line, and the group that I’m going to be talking to, the group that I care the most about right now, because it impacted them so much, is the families,” Scott told reporters Wednesday.

Immediately following the nation’s second-worst school shooting, students, parents and teachers from the Parkland school flooded the Capitol, pleading with the Scott and the Legislature to act. Many Douglas High student survivors demanded a ban on assault-style weapons, along with a hike in the age to purchase rifles.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been inundated by emails and phone calls from opponents and supporters of the measure, which does not include an assault-weapons ban.

Two fathers whose daughters were among the 14 students slain on Valentine’s Day, including Pollack, watched from the House gallery as the chamber debated the measure Wednesday.

The Parkland parents and students were instrumental in the passage of Florida’s first gun restrictions in nearly two decades, said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat who graduated from Douglas High and served on the Parkland city commission.

“These parents, unfortunately, should not have had to do this. It should have been obvious that we needed to do something after Parkland. We should not have needed an additional push from these parents. These parents should be grieving, not lobbying for us to do the right things. There’s no question that they were the difference makers,” Moskowitz said.

In contrast to previous school shootings, such as the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, when the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature was unwilling to irk the NRA, state lawmakers quickly passed this year’s measure for two reasons, according to Moskowitz.

“Because we were in session, and being in session in an election year, those two forces combined and something had to happen,” he said. “Parkland was the worst place for this to happen, and the best place for this to happen. It showed everybody in America that this can come to your neighborhood. If the safest city in the state, if this can happen there, it can come anywhere.”

Pollack said he will remain in Tallahassee for a few days, indicating a bill-signing could come soon.

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