TALLAHASSEE — It doesn’t include the assault weapons ban that students who survived Florida’s deadly school shooting demanded of lawmakers, but the state’s Senate narrowly passed a bill that would create new restrictions on rifle sales and allow some teachers to carry guns in schools.
Meanwhile, prosecutors and lawyers for the victims are going to court to handle the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the court system.
Grand jurors are expected to begin hearing evidence on Tuesday against Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old former student who authorities say killed 17 people and injured more than a dozen others when he fired an AR-15 assault-style rifle inside the school.
And grievously injured student Anthony Borges, 15, and his family filed a letter of intent to sue the Broward Sheriff’s Office and school resource officer as well as the school system and Marjory Stoneman Douglas principal to help recover the costs of his recovery. Attorney Alex Arreaza said in the Monday letter that Borges still can’t walk and has “a great deal of difficulty performing rudimentary tasks for himself.”
The 20-18 Senate vote Monday evening followed three hours of often emotional debate. Support and opposition crossed party lines, and it was clear many of those who voted for the bill weren’t entirely happy with it. The bill now goes to the House, which has a similar bill awaiting consideration by the full chamber.
“Do I think this bill goes far enough? No! No, I don’t!” said Democratic Sen. Lauren Book, who tearfully described visiting the school after the shooting.
Book also wanted a ban on assault-style rifles, like many of the students who traveled to the state Capitol, who asked lawmakers to do that and more to stop future mass shootings. But Book said she couldn’t let the 60-day legislative session end Friday without doing something.
“My community was rocked. My school children were murdered in their classrooms. I cannot live with a choice to put party politics above an opportunity to get something done that inches us closer to the place I believe we should be as a state,” she said. “This is the first step in saying never again.”
Earlier Monday, families of the 17 people who died called on the state’s Legislature to pass a bill they believe will improve school security.
Reading a statement outside Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Ryan Petty implored legislators to pass Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to add armed security guards, keep guns away from the mentally ill and improve mental health programs for at-risk teens. Scott also opposes arming teachers.
“We must be the last families to lose loved ones in a mass shooting at a school. This time must be different and we demand action,” said Petty, reading from the group statement.
Petty’s 14-year-old daughter, Alaina, was killed in the Feb. 14 shooting, along with 13 schoolmates and three staff members.
If just one more senator voted no, the bill would have died. Democrats didn’t like the idea of letting teachers carry guns, even if the bill was amended to water down that proposed program. And many pro-gun rights Republicans didn’t like the idea of raising the minimum age to buy rifles from 18 to 21 and to create a waiting period on sales of the weapons.
The Senate amended its bill to limit which teachers could volunteer to go through law enforcement training and carry guns in schools. Any teacher who does nothing but work in a classroom would not be eligible, but teachers who perform other duties, such as serving as a coach, and other school employees could still participate. Other exceptions would be made for teachers who are current or former law enforcement officers, members of the military or who teach in a Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps program.
The bill would name the program for slain assistant football coach Aaron Feis, who has been hailed as a hero for shielding students during the school attack. Republican Sen. Bill Galvano said he got the approval of Feis’ family to name the program for him.
Galvano, who took the lead on the bill, said he sees the bipartisan opposition as a good thing.
“You know what that means in my experience? That we’ve gotten somewhere,” he said. “We’re hitting nerves. We’re going into areas that may not be our comfort zone.”
The bill also would create new mental health programs for schools; improve communication between schools, law enforcement and state agencies; create a task force to review mistakes made during mass shootings nationally and recommend improvements in Florida law; and establish an anonymous tip line students and others can use to report threats to schools.
“This bill will make a difference now. When it becomes law, things will start changing,” Galvano said. “We listened and we’re trying. We’re trying hard.”