Scott, legislators pitch changes in school safety, gun laws

Pledging “change is coming” and “never again,” Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislative leaders on Friday released proposals encompassing gun laws, safer schools and mental health, with the goal of preventing future tragedies like last week’s mass shooting at a Broward County high school that left 14 students and three faculty members dead.

The plans came nine days after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz went on a shooting spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Cruz has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder in the school deaths.

The sweeping plans --- which total up to $500 million --- swiftly drew the ire of Democrats, who said the measures don’t go far enough, and National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, who blasted the proposals as punishing gun owners for the crimes of a madman.

The Republican leaders released their plans two days after meeting with Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who traveled to the Capitol to plead for stricter gun laws to stop murderers like Cruz, who a year ago legally purchased --- with no waiting period --- the assault-style weapon he used to mow down students and faculty at the school he once attended.

Scott said he has been speaking with students and parents from the school and attending funerals since the shooting.

“My message to them has been very simple. You are not alone. Change is coming, and it will come fast,” Scott told reporters at an 11 a.m. press conference, an hour before House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron held a separate media event to announce their plans.

Details of Cruz’s troubled history, frequent interactions with law enforcement and the FBI’s failure to investigate at least one alert that the teenager posed a threat to schools helped spark Scott and Republican legislative leaders to craft multi-faceted proposals encompassing school safety measures, new gun restrictions and mental health services.

The governor and the legislative leaders parted ways on two significant elements: a controversial program to allow trained teachers and administrators to bring guns to school and a three-day waiting period on the purchase of long guns --- as endorsed by the House and Senate and already required for handguns, but excluded from Scott’s plan.

Scott and legislative leaders agreed on a plan to require people to be at least 21 years old to purchase any gun, a requirement already in place for handguns but not long guns such as rifles and shotguns. The powerful NRA opposes such a change.

And Scott and lawmakers would ban “bump stocks,” an idea also opposed by the NRA. Bump stocks are used to speed up the rate of firing of semiautomatic weapons.

Hammer, the NRA’s Florida lobbyist who is widely considered one of the most powerful lobbyists in the Capitol, had harsh words for the governor and lawmakers, accusing them of floating “political eyewash” that “punishes” gun owners.

“This is a betrayal of law-abiding gun owners who did absolutely nothing. All of the laws in place to identify and stop this kind of activity failed. So since they can’t actually punish those failures, they’re going to punish law-abiding gun owners. And of course, we always obey the law, so they don’t have to worry about us before or after they pass this gratuitous gun control,” Hammer told The News Service of Florida on Friday.

Among the disclosures during the past week has been that Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ school-resource officer, Scot Peterson, did not enter the building to try to stop the shooting. Peterson resigned Thursday after being suspended by Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.

Hammer said the NRA endorses part of the legislative proposal, which involves the concept of a “school marshal” program. Under the program, teachers or other school employees who’ve undergone extensive training and been deputized by local sheriffs could bring guns to school. Current Florida law allows only law enforcement officials to carry weapons on school property. The marshal proposal is similar to a program created by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

If passed, Florida would be the first state to launch such a program, according to Corcoran, who said qualified people would be both teachers hired by school systems and law-enforcement officers working under sheriffs.

But Scott balked at the idea of armed teachers, saying “my focus is on bringing in law enforcement.”

His plan would require at least one school resource officer --- a police officer or sheriff’s deputy --- in each of the state’s 4,000 public schools, including charter schools. Scott, who wants to spend $500 million on his overall package, is recommending a ratio of one resource officer for every 1,000 students.

The governor and Republican leaders are also divided about another element likely to face pushback from the NRA. Scott is proposing a “violent threat restraining order” that would allow family members or law enforcement officials to get court orders to take guns away from people who have shown evidence of being a danger to themselves or others.

“No one with mental issues should have access to a gun. It’s common sense,” Scott said.

But House Rules & Policy Chairman Jose Oliva and his colleagues rejected such a plan.

“We took a long, hard look at this,” said Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican slated to take over as House speaker this fall. “Whenever you are going to deprive someone of something, you have to do it under a condition that provides clear evidence that that is necessary. In the way that we’ve seen it, giving people outside of either the authority or the understanding of what is clear and present danger --- a family member, a neighbor, or someone like that --- to directly make that appeal, we think goes beyond.”

The Florida Education Association teachers’ union offered support for Scott’s proposal, while Democrats argued the measure fails to go far enough by not including a ban on “assault” rifles like the AR-15 used by the Parkland shooter.

FEA President Joanne McCall said Scott’s outline is “very close” to a recommendation from the union, while any discussion about “weapons designed for war” is something that can be addressed after “sensible gun policy” is enacted.

Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon noted that Democrats had already filed bills that would raise the age to purchase long guns and create the gun restraining order.

“We can beef up mental health screenings, raise the age for gun purchases, and dream up other stopgap measures, but the threat to our children and our citizens will continue until we finally take bold action to ban assault weapons designed for the battlefield from easy access in our communities. Without that, the voices of the students, and the will of the people, continue to be ignored,” Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said in a statement.

But Scott rejected “a mass takeaway of Second Amendment rights.”

“That is not the answer. Keeping guns away from dangerous people, and people with mental illness, is what we need to do,” he said.

At Corcoran’s urging, Republican legislative leaders are also pushing creation of a commission, to be headed by the parent of one of slain students, and a special counsel to investigate how different agencies handled Cruz and identify any potential shortcomings in the law-enforcement and school systems.

Lawmakers are racing against the clock to pass a wide-ranging measure before the legislative session ends on March 9.

“Our job is to lead. Government has failed on multiple levels. It can never happen again. Our hope is that we will put together, jointly with the Senate, a proposal that will ensure it never happens again and we don’t fail our school students again,” Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, told reporters.


News Service of Florida staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this story.