Despite a room at the state Capitol packed with people urging them not to do it, lawmakers on a key state Senate committee moved a measure forward this week to allow armed teachers in schools – an expansion of Florida’s existing “Guardian” program.
In emotional testimony during the two-hour hearing, one high school student told lawmakers: “We cannot solve gun violence by giving teachers guns.”
But the committee voted 5-3 to allow it, with Republicans approving and Democrats opposing.
In addition to letting teachers who have firearms training carry guns, the bill would also potentially allocate more funding for safety and “hardening” schools with building security measures. The proposals are a response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in 2018, which killed 17 people.
The Senate bill sponsor, Miami-Dade County Republican Manny Diaz, began the discussion by calling the bill a “giant work in progress.”
The Legislature passed the original school “Guardian” program in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland tragedy last year. That measure included some of the first restrictions on gun use in Florida in a generation. But it also allowed for some school personnel (not teachers) to carry guns. Only a few counties have chosen to use school personnel to guard classrooms during the past year.
The proposal in this year’s legislation to arm teachers is optional, Diaz and other Republicans on the Senate Committee on Infrastructure and Security Committee repeated throughout the nearly two-hour hearing.
“No teacher is obligated to do it. No school is obligated to do it,” said Diaz.
“It would be totally optional for a teacher to volunteer, or not volunteer?” asked state Senator Aaron Bean, a Republican from Fernandina Beach.
The answer was yes.
But critics disputed that notion.
“You guys say that this bill is optional for the county, but it is not optional for the students in the school systems,” said Molly Lavoie, a senior in a Florida public high school. “This would inevitably negatively shift the school environment away from learning and could result in accidental deaths. We cannot solve gun violence by giving teachers guns.”
Nicolette Springer from the League of Women Voters of Florida said the proposal isn’t optional for teachers, either.
“These are teachers who have built their careers in communities who are raising their families in those same communities, and who are looking to educate children in their community,” she said. “And if they live in the county in which their district has decided to arm teachers, they have no option. It’s not voluntary for them. They have to work in a school where the teacher next door may have a weapon. And they’re not comfortable with that.”
Dave Galloway, an elementary school teacher in Jackson County, said he served in the military and “These worlds don’t work together.”
Under the proposal, teachers or other school personnel would need to complete 132 hours of comprehensive firearm safety and proficiency training before they would be allowed to carry a gun on a campus.
State Senator Ed Hooper, a Republican from Pinellas County, said he doesn’t like guns in schools, but was persuaded to back arming teachers after speaking with Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who headed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. Gualtieri was initially against the idea but then came out in favor of it.
Senator Annette Taddeo, a Democrat from Miami-Dade County, said students would be less safe with armed teachers at school. She also expressed concerns that local police won’t be able to discern who is a teacher and who is an assailant if there is a gunman on campus.
The legislation now moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Similar legislation is moving forward in the state House of Representatives.