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The Florida legislature’s push to arm school personnel, explained

Now teachers can’t participate in the “school marshal” program. But counselors and coaches can.

Activists Rally At Florida State Capitol For Gun Law Reform Legislation
Gun reform activists in Tallahassee on Monday.
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The Republican-held, typically pro-gun Florida legislature is weighing some gun control measures after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead. But the bill also includes a program that gun control advocates hate: arming teachers in the state’s schools.

The proposed legislation would also raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21 and impose a minimum three-day waiting period for gun purchases — alongside an opt-in “school marshal” program that would train and arm teachers in Florida schools.

Florida has been a trailblazer on pro-gun legislation. The state’s concealed carry law in 1987 became a national model. So did its 2005 “stand your ground” law. If Florida’s state legislature bucks the National Rifle Association to pass new restrictions on gun purchases, it would mark a significant shift. But history suggests other states could also see its program to train teachers to carry firearms as another policy worth adopting.

So advocates face a trade-off: modest gun control measures at the cost of more weapons, not fewer, in schools. Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a former Parkland vice mayor, described the dilemma to the Associated Press: “It doesn’t go far enough, and now it goes too far in other areas. But the NRA opposes it and I will not vote with the NRA.”

Florida wants to respond to the Parkland shooting by arming teachers

The state House and Senate are considering similar bills that include incremental gun reforms alongside a contentious program that would coordinate with law enforcement to train teachers to carry guns.

The House version of the bill would direct $67 million to a “school marshal” program to train and arm teachers. School boards or superintendents would decide whether to participate and sponsor teachers to undergo training with the local sheriff’s department.

According to Politico:

A school staffer who enters the program, among other things, must get a mental health screening, and receive training for things like firearms safety, classes in firearm precision and discretionary shooting, and active-shooter training.

Teachers would undergo 132 hours of training, pass background checks and drug tests, and officially become sworn officers with the local sheriff’s office — essentially teachers and cops in one. The bill aims to put 10 armed teachers in every school — coming out to about 37,000 more guns statewide, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Teachers who become trained marshals would get a $500 stipend. Republican Rep. José Oliva, who sponsored the legislation, said it’s up to school boards or superintendents whether teachers would have to purchase their own firearms or whether the district would buy them.

“The last line of defense would be a highly trained person in the school,” Oliva said, according to the Miami Herald.

The Florida Senate bill includes a similar program but instead requires the local sheriff’s departments to weigh in; both the school districts and law enforcement would have to agree to adopt the program.

Florida’s “school marshal” program hews closely to one already in existence in Central Florida’s Polk County, sponsored by a local sheriff. The Ledger, a paper in Polk County, reported that just Southeastern University, a private college, participates, with nine staff members as trained special deputies authorized to carry weapons.

“The Legislature can act on behalf of children and give us the tools to reduce probabilities of an active shooter slaughtering our children. Nothing is 100 percent, but we need to have tools,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told the Ledger, adding that he was working with state legislators on the issue.

At least eight US states currently allow, or at least don’t have a law prohibiting, people with concealed carry permits to bring guns onto K-12 campuses, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Texas probably has the closest model to what Florida is proposing. President Donald Trump, who has pushed the idea of arming teachers in the wake of the Parkland shooting, referenced the Texas policy in his meeting with state governors this week.

In 2013, following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the state passed the Protection of Texas Children Act, which allows educators to undergo firearm and active-shooter training to carry concealed weapons. The Houston Chronicle reports that at least 172 of Texas’s 1,200 school districts have implemented the policy, though they’re mostly in rural school districts where local law enforcement presence on campus is rare.

Families of Parkland victims spoke up against the bill

As German Lopez has written for Vox, there’s no good research that supports the idea that arming teachers could effectively prevent mass shootings. But there is plenty of research to suggest that adding more deadly weapons increases the chances of violence. It is also extremely difficult to stop mass shooting events, even with extensive firearm training.

Critics have also pointed out the increased potential for accidents or unintentional shootings in volatile situations. In Georgia this week, a social studies teacher barricaded himself in a room and allegedly fired a gun.

The idea of arming teachers will likely continue to face opposition in the Florida legislature as the bills move to the floor — including from families and survivors of the Parkland shooting, many of whom spoke out against arming teachers, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

“It could easily cause additional chaos and fatalities,” Linda Beigel Schulman, whose son Scott Beigel was a teacher killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, testified to legislators. She said her son became a teacher to teach, “not to be a law enforcement officer.”

And a majority of Floridians are against the measure. A new Quinnipiac poll says 56 percent of voters in Florida oppose the idea of arming teachers, compared to 40 percent who support the measure.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott has also said he disagrees with the idea of giving teachers guns. “I don’t believe we should be arming our teachers,” he told reporters Tuesday. “We should be focused on arming law enforcement. So my focus is how do we make sure we have the resources that our law enforcement are trained to do the job. So my focus is arm law enforcement, let teachers teach.”

Scott has proposed spending $500 million on other school safety and mental health measures, including better coordination between school, mental health counselors, and local law enforcement. He suggested placing at least one police officer per 1,000 students at every school, starting next year.

But he hasn’t said whether he would outright veto legislation that includes arming teachers, saying he’d review whatever came to his desk.

Florida Democrats, who largely oppose the idea, couldn’t get the votes to strip the “school marshal” amendment from the House legislation on Tuesday. They have continued to advocate against it.

One Democratic lawmaker from Miami, former law enforcement official Robert Asencio, posted a dramatic video of himself with a firearm to protest the measure.

“House Democrats have filed numerous amendments to the proposed gun reform package containing the substance of those pieces of legislation,” Max Flugrath, the communications director for the Florida House Democratic Office, told Vox in a statement. “And now, House Leadership has inserted a provision into the bill which would weaponize our teachers, an idea which fifty-six percent of Floridians oppose.”

Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at University of South Florida and longtime Florida political analyst, described the fate of the “school marshal” program as “very, very uncertain.” She suggested that once lawmakers actually start working out details, they might realize the possible pitfalls outweigh the potential benefits. But that doesn’t mean it won’t pass.

The bill also includes new restrictions on gun purchases

The legislation would put some restrictions on gun purchases and provide schools with mental health counseling and safety funding. It would:

  • Increase the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, though active military, law enforcement, and correctional officers would be exempt. Federal law mandates that people under the age of 21 can’t buy handguns from licensed dealers, though it’s 18 for long guns such as rifles and shotguns from licensed dealers. Some states have stricter requirements, but Hawaii and Illinois also ban the purchase of rifles and shotguns from licensed dealers by people under 21, according to data from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
  • Require a three-day waiting period on all firearm purchases, or until a background check is complete — whichever takes longer. (There are a few exemptions, including for concealed carry permit holders.)
  • Ban bump stocks, devices that effectively convert a semiautomatic weapon into an automatic one. (The House bill would also prohibit possession.)
  • Allow police to petition in court for risk protection order, which would let authorities restrict firearm possession for those considered a danger to themselves or others. Such an order could be extended for up to a year. This is similar to what are called “red flag” laws, which exist in California, Oregon, Indiana, Connecticut, and Washington. (Rhode Island’s governor just signed an executive order to implement such a law after the Parkland shooting.) In these situations, a judge can intervene — usually after being alerted by a family member or friend — and temporarily confiscate guns from people who have threatened violence.
  • Provide additional funding for school mental health and counseling programs and other school safety programs — including more support for school resource officers.

Florida’s bill tackles some of the glaring failures in the Parkland shooting. The shooter, a 19-year-old, could legally purchase an assault-style rifle — which Florida’s new law would prevent. It’s not clear how far this provision will actually go to prevent mass shootings; according to data from Everytown for Gun Safety, a pro-gun control group, people under 21 carried out two of 156 mass shootings (four or more people shot and killed) between 2009 and 2016.

The “red flag”-style law — which would temporarily seize firearms from people deemed a threat — also targets a breakdown ahead of a Parkland-style situation. Local law enforcement received multiple tips about the Parkland shooter, and the FBI was also notified that he might be dangerous. The measure Florida is considering would give family, friends, and police more opportunities to intervene (at least in theory), even if a person hasn’t been adjudicated as mentally ill.

Connecticut, which adopted this type of law in 1999, one of the first states to do so, found that at first, the procedure wasn’t widely used — though that changed after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, reports the New York Times.

But Connecticut still witnessed the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in 2012; after that, the Connecticut government enacted even stricter gun control measures: It banned purchases of assault-style weapons and magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. It also mandated a permit to purchase a firearm.

But Florida’s legislation doesn’t include the big-ticket item desired by many Parkland activists: an assault weapons ban. Lawmakers in Florida’s Senate roundly rejected an amendment on Monday that would have banned about 200 types of semiautomatic rifles.

Two-thirds of Florida voters support an assault weapons ban, but as Mary Ellen Klas explains in the Tampa Bay Times, while Republicans in swing districts are more receptive to a ban, they’re outnumbered by those in solidly red districts whose pro-gun voters may be more likely to mobilize on the issue.

For now, it seems as if gun control advocates may take the early victory in anticipation of a more protracted battle to come on an assault weapons ban. “At what point do we have the discussion of is it better to pass something rather than nothing?” Anitere Flores, a Republican state senator who supports a ban on assault weapons, said to the Tampa Bay Times.

And the NRA has come out staunchly against even the most incremental gun restrictions. Marion Hammer, a powerful Florida NRA lobbyist, called them “nothing more than an attack on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding people” in testimony to the House on Tuesday.

But Florida Republicans are among those backing the proposed gun control provisions. Gov. Scott, who’s reportedly considering a Senate run in 2018, has also indicated his support for these reforms.

This also isn’t a sign that Florida is about to reverse its position as a gun-friendly state. “I still think you’ll definitely see the Second Amendment is still the strong thing in Florida,” MacManus said. “It’s just that the emphasis has turned to mental health and hardening the schools, that kind of thing.”

But, she adds, “it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. It is incremental. That’s the way major public policy in this country is made.”

MacManus said that the magnitude of the tragedy in Parkland — and the wave of outrage that followed — has forced lawmakers to quickly change policy. “That kind of movement, when minors, in this case, high school students, take charge and engage adults to the level that they did so quickly, you knew the legislature had to pay attention,” she said.

The Florida legislative session ends next week, on March 9. That has brought an increased level of urgency to get something — anything — done. The approaching deadline makes it harder for would-be skittish legislators to delay action, especially if they worry voters are paying attention. The entire Florida House and about half of the Senate are up for reelection this year.

“They cannot go home doing nothing,” MacManus said.