Increasingly deadly mass shootings in recent years turned calls for gun control into the constant background noise of American politics over the past two yearsand no state in the union suffered as many high-profile attacks as Florida. But in a Southern state steeped in Second Amendment enthusiasm, the demands for change made their way into the casing bins of history almost as fast as news could break on the next massacre. But the death of 17 individuals—14 of them students—at a Parkland high school seems finally to have delivered the needed momentum for some legislation to pass.

Gov. Rick Scott in March signed the first significant gun control measure passed in Florida in more than two decades, along with $400 million in funding for schools and improving mental health screenings. The new law increases the required age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21, bans the purchase of bump stocks like those used in Las Vegas to modify rifles into fully automatic weapons, puts a waiting period previously only applied to pistol purchases onto assault-style rifles as well and strengthens universal background checks.

Yet the legislation hardly drew praise from proponents of greater regulations on firearms. In fact, most Democrats in the Florida legislature voted against the new law, siding ironically with a contingent of hardline gun rights supporters who called the law an infringement on personal liberty. The concern on the left came not from new restrictions but from a “guardian” program that could lead to more guns on campus in the hands of staff personnel with concealed carry permits who undergo 132 hours of special training. “Arming teachers, janitors and lunch ladies will make our schools more dangerous and our students less safe,” says state Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota.


Pressure to Act


The 2018 legislation session this year looked to be relatively uneventful in terms of policy debates. A rash of sex scandals before session that brought down such major players as state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican running for governor at the time, and state Sen. Jeff Clemens, the Democratic leader, seemed to leave Tallahassee in a state of shellshock. Expected fights about incentives and tourism funding ended up brushed aside as lawmakers sought a friction-free year during what many fear will be a tough re-election year for incumbents.

But then came Feb. 14, when a former student walked into Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School with an AR-15 and started murdering people in his school. The national tragedy turned a fresh eye on Florida gun laws. Alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz, 18, had legally purchased semi-automatic weapons despite repeated calls to local police and the FBI. Once again, Florida’s gun laws came under scrutiny, and not long after a 2016 shooting left 50 people dead in Orlando or after a 2017 shooting left five dead at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. But this attack took its toll primarily on children, teenagers most too young to own a firearm and left throughout the day in the custody of public schools.

Gov. Scott immediately called together special task force meetings with school leaders, mental health professionals and law enforcement from all over the state, among them Sarasota and Manatee County School Board chairs Bridget Ziegler and Scott Hopes. Ziegler says she left the Tallahassee meetings struck by demands from students for better security on campus. While she feels confident plans for single-entry campuses are on track in Sarasota, she says many leaders around the state need to listen to the voices of students more. “There is absolutely a strong passion and motivation to not just sit and talk things to death, but for our plans to be actionable,” Ziegler says.

Hopes left the state capital certain the state would devote more budget to hardening schools, and that did ultimately pass. “We need funding so the school systems are able to implement this,” he says.

But while few voices rose in opposition to better control of access points at schools, debate grew intense in Tallahassee about a program to arm more adults on campuses across Florida. After President Donald Trump called on a program offering financial incentives to teachers who get concealed carry permits and sign up as school “marshals,” the state House in Florida passed a bill that would allow teachers who so choose to undergo training and carry personal firearms on campus. In the Florida Senate, a less aggressive approach passed, one that allowed some school professionals besides law enforcement to have guns, but not classroom teachers. Ultimately, that bill passed through both chambers and won the governor’s signature. But while the final bill was a compromise, it drew sharp criticism on both sides of the aisle.


Odd Allies


The final school safety bill drew the support of national gun control advocates like Everytown for Gun Safety, but both the National Rifle Association and the Florida Coalition to End Gun Violence staunchly opposed the measure. In the end, it passed by a 20-18 vote in the Senate and a 67-50 vote in the House. The measure split Gulf Coast lawmakers. State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, sided with leadership in favor of the reform with state Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, voting against. In the House, supporters included state Reps. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, and Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, but state Reps. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, and Newt Newton, D-St. Petersburg, were joined by Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, in voting against the bill. Gruters jokes that Good, who filled a vacancy in the House halfway through session, may end up with a higher grade from the NRA than he will, despite the fact Good supports a ban on assault weapons.

But while Gruters’ social media pages have lit up with complaints from Second Amendment absolutists that he trampled on the rights of law-abiding citizens, he says he couldn’t leave session this year having done nothing to help schools. “I voted based on what I think is the right thing to do,” Gruters says, and called those who voted against the bill as representing the “outer edges of their party.”

But Good says she couldn’t support a bill allegedly intended to boost school security but which puts deadly weapons on campus. “Trained law enforcement hit their targets in active shooter situations less than 20 percent of the time,” she says, suggesting educators whose primary training lies in teaching, not security, will offer little help to schools. Meanwhile, lawmakers shot down a proposal from Democrats to ban the sale of assault-style weapons and large capacity magazines. “Banning these weapons of war is the number one thing Parkland students demanded and we failed them.”

Gonzalez, on the other hand, says the new guardian program may in fact do more to deter school shootings by scaring shooters off from attempting them in the first place. He notes no potential shooter will know how many professionals on a campus have access to deadly force to stop an attack. And if one does attack, one of the trained guardians may be able to stop or slow killings during those critical minutes before law enforcement arrives on scene.

But he couldn’t support the bill because of what he considers an unfair degradation of the rights of gun-owning adults. He doubts that will deter school violence in any meaningful way. “It was a hollow bill when one considers that the allocation provisions in the rest of the bill were achievable through the budget bill and that the authority to arm school personnel is already legal in Florida,” he says. The NRA has already filed a suit against the bill on constitutional grounds, and Gonzalez says he’s curious how that turns out.

Gruters incidentally became one of two Republicans in the House to support an amendment taking classroom teachers out of the list of professionals who could bring guns to school. He says he became convinced when talking to one of his own children’s teachers. “I don’t think the answer to anything is for her to be packing heat,” he says.