After raw and emotional debate, the Florida Legislature voted Wednesday to allow Florida teachers the option of carrying guns in their classrooms.
The 65-47 vote in the Florida House of Representatives sends the controversial measure (SB 7030) to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it.
Five Republican lawmakers joined 42 Democrats in opposing the measure.
Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota County Democrat who opposed the bill, warned that the Republican majority is out of step with Floridians.
“For my constituents and for many, many Floridians, this is another example of the great divide between what Floridians want and what this Legislature does,” Good said. “These parents are scared and they are looking to us. Yet instead of providing enough funding for (law-enforcement) officers in every school, we are debating arming teachers.”
Republicans defended the guns-in-classrooms provision as one of the recommendations from a statewide task force that reviewed school safety challenges in the wake of the February 2018 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. Seventeen students and staff members were killed.
After that tragedy, the 2018 Legislature voted to let some school personnel – but not classroom teachers – carry guns on campus. Some 25 school districts are now using non-classroom personnel as guardians on school campuses to replace or supplement security that was once provided only by trained law-enforcement officers.
The proposal would let local school boards decide whether to allow teachers to become armed guardians. The teachers would participate on a volunteer basis. The guardians are under the supervision of local sheriffs, with a minimum of 144 hours of training and a psychological review.
Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican who supported the bill, said there is no “mandate” requiring teachers to carry guns.
“It gives the flexibility to local school districts and to local sheriffs,” Donalds said. “The teachers that love our kids, and I know that they do, at the end of it all, they still have to volunteer. They still have to choose for themselves.”
The vote followed a long debate on Tuesday evening where the House rejected more than 20 amendments from the Democrats that sought to modify the legislation. Among the defeated measures were:
–Requiring parental approval for allowing a child to be in a classroom with an armed teacher.
–Installing panic buttons in schools that could be used in the event of shooting incidents.
–Shifting money from the guardian program to school counselors, mental health experts or for providing more school “hardening” measures, such as fencing or bullet-proof glass.
One of the most heated exchanges happened after Democrats pointed out that an armed law-enforcement officer had accidentally discharged his gun at a Pasco County school on Tuesday. No one was hurt, but Democrats said it was an example of what could happen if teachers armed themselves.
But Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, a Lake County Republican who sponsored the House version of the bill, said it was a law-enforcement officer involved in the accident and not a “guardian,” like a teacher would be.
That drew a strong rebuke from Rep. Wengay Newton, a St. Petersburg Democrat.
“It was a gun. It was a bullet that you can’t bring back,” Newton said. “This is insane.”
Wednesday’s debate was calmer but still evoked strong emotions from the House members.
“I wish we didn’t have a need for any guns at any of our schools. But trained law-enforcement officers, currently sworn, that’s who we should be having there. Them and not anyone else,” said Rep. Joe Geller, a Miami-Dade County Democrat. “It’s inevitable that somebody sooner or later is going to make a mistake and lives will be lost.”
But Rep. Chuck Brannan, a Baker County Republican who is a former sheriff’s deputy and investigator, said some teachers like his late wife, who was a teacher and military veteran, would be willing carry guns to improve school safety.
“Nobody is forcing this on anyone. It’s our choice,” Brannan said. “It allows the good guy to defend themselves and our children. The bad guys will never know when the good guys are going to be there to shoot back…. It’s going be the deterrent effect.”
There are less controversial provisions in the legislation, including efforts to improve school mental-health services, report safety incidents on campuses and evaluate threat assessments. There are also provisions to improve the physical security of school campuses.
“There is a lot of good in this bill,” said Rep. Kristin Jacobs, a Broward County Democrat who voted against the measure. “But there is a poison pill.”
With Gov. DeSantis expected to sign the bill, Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, said his teachers’ union will be urging “parents, teachers and staff to speak up against arming teachers, to rise up and tell their local school boards that they do not want guns in classrooms.”
“Districts will be the last line of defense on this issue,” Ingram said in a statement. “There is no research to show that arming teachers will make our students safer. Opinion polls consistently show the public is against it.”
School boards in Orange, Duval, Hillsborough, Lee, Leon, Manatee and Sarasota counties have already voted to oppose arming teachers.