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Florida lawmakers near final action on gun-school safety bill

FILE PHOTO: Protestors rally outside the Capitol urging Florida lawmakers to reform gun laws, in Tallahassee

FILE PHOTO: Protestors rally outside the Capitol urging Florida lawmakers to reform gun laws, in the wake of last week’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Tallahassee, Florida, U.S., February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Colin Hackley

By Bernie Woodall

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (Reuters) – Florida state lawmakers neared a final vote on Wednesday on a gun-safety package that would raise the legal age for buying rifles, impose a three-day waiting period on all firearms sales and allow the arming of some public school personnel.

The legislation, which narrowly cleared the state Senate on Monday, was spurred by the Feb. 14 killing of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, and the extraordinary lobbying campaign mounted by young survivors of the massacre.

The Florida House of Representatives rejected three dozen amendments on Tuesday, including a last-ditch bid to strip the bill of any measures permitting school staff to carry guns to work.

The bill returned to the House floor on Wednesday for a last up-or-down vote following a final round of debate. No further amendments were anticipated, and the bill was expected to pass, according to a spokesman for the speaker’s office, Fred Piccolo.

The measure would then automatically become law within 15 days unless vetoed by the governor.

Swift action in the Republican-controlled statehouse, where the National Rifle Association (NRA) has long held sway, signaled a possible turning point in the national debate between gun control advocates and proponents of firearms rights enshrined in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

As legislators debated in Tallahassee, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited Stoneman Douglas on the first full day of classes since the shooting.

The bill under consideration represented both a break with the NRA on gun sale restrictions and a partial acceptance of its proposition that the best defense against armed criminals is the presence of “good guys with guns.”

The bill creates a program allowing local sheriffs to deputize school staff as volunteer armed “guardians,” subject to special training, mental health and drug screening and a license to carry a concealed weapon. Each school district would decide whether to opt in.

Classroom teachers are excluded from participating unless they meet one of three narrow criteria – they are Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps instructors, serve in the military or have been police officers.

Otherwise, only non-teacher personnel are eligible, such as administrators, guidance counselors, librarians and coaches.

The carve-out for teachers was aimed at winning support from Governor Rick Scott, a Republican and staunch NRA ally who nevertheless is opposed to arming teachers. Many parents, law enforcement officials and legislators in both parties object to allowing guns in the classroom.

Civil rights advocates have said allowing school staff to carry guns would pose a particular risk to minority students, who they say stand a greater chance of being shot in a confrontation by armed personnel.

“The thought of even one student being gunned down by the person responsible for educating and caring for them is just too much,” said Representative Amy Mercado, a Democrat from Orlando.

Supporters of the bill urged its passage, acknowledging the bill was not perfect but represented a major step for improving school safety.

U.S. President Donald Trump has voiced support for arming teachers as a deterrent to gun violence in schools.

A Scott spokeswoman has said the governor would review the bill in its final form before deciding whether to support it. Besides being opposed to arming teachers, Scott had concerns with the proposed three-day waiting period for purchases of all firearms. A three-day wait currently applies in Florida only to handgun sales.

Another key provision would raise the minimum age for all gun purchases in the state to 21. The minimum age for handguns nationally is 21, but a person as young as 18 can buy a rifle in Florida.

A Florida grand jury indicted Nikolas Cruz on Wednesday on 17 counts of premeditated murder in the first degree and 17 counts of attempted murder in the first degree for the shooting spree at Stoneman Douglas, prosecutors said.

Cruz was 18 years old when he legally purchased the semiautomatic AR-15 assault-style rifle used in the massacre, according to police.

The measure also makes it easier for police to temporarily seize guns from people involuntarily committed due to mental illness or deemed a danger to themselves or others by a court.

Cruz had a history of mental issues, numerous encounters with police and was expelled from Stoneman Douglas last year for disciplinary problems, according to authorities.

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(Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)

 

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