Florida lawmakers near final action on gun-school safety Bill

Betsy DeVos speaks to the media about her visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Betsy DeVos speaks to the media about her visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.PHOTO: AFP

CORAL SPRINGS, Florida (REUTERS) - Florida state lawmakers were due to vote again on Wednesday (March 7) 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 remarkable lobbying campaign mounted by young survivors of the massacre.

The state 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 was scheduled to return to the House floor on Wednesday for what could be a final vote. Any amendments offered at that stage would require two-thirds approval.

If the Bill passes the House unchanged, it would 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, signalled a possible turning point in the national debate between gun control advocates and proponents of firearms rights enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.

As legislators debated in Tallahassee, US 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 defence against armed criminals is the presence of "good guys with guns."

The Bill creates a programme allowing local sheriffs to deputise school staff as volunteer armed "guardians", subject to special training, mental health and drug screening and a licence to carry a concealed weapon.

Each school district would decide whether to opt into the programme.

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 had been police officers.

Otherwise, only non-teacher personnel are eligible, such as administrators, guidance counsellors, 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.

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

A Scott spokeswoman has said he considered the Bill a "step in the right direction" but 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 in the Bill would raise the minimum legal age for all gun purchases in the state to 21. The minimum age for handguns nationally is already 21. But a person can be as young as 18 to 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.

While state legislators voted against banning assault weapons outright in Florida, the bill would outlaw "bump stocks," which enable a semiautomatic weapon to be fired like a fully automatic machine gun.

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. Law enforcement agencies acknowledged that they received multiple warnings about his potential for violence before the shooting.

During her visit to Stoneman Douglas, DeVos met with teachers, counsellors, administrators and some students, according to a Department of Education statement.

"They are obviously very, very interested in seeing what adults are going to do about this whole situation and what we're going to do to find common ground and common solutions to carry forward," DeVos told reporters in nearby Coral Springs after the visit, referring to the students.

She declined to answer a question about banning assault weapons, saying the Trump administration wanted to act, rather than talk about solutions.