TALLAHASSEE — On the same day Democrats began pushing for a special session on gun violence, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill adding to the state’s long list of school safety reforms enacted since the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
DeSantis put out a news release Tuesday announcing he signed the bipartisan-supported bill, HB 1421, which adopts a number of additional recommendations by the task force created in the wake of the shooting deaths of 17 students and faculty at the Parkland high school on Feb. 14, 2018.
“Every child needs a safe and secure learning environment,” DeSantis said in the release. Besides signing the bill into law, DeSantis noted the state budget has $140 million in it for mental health and $210 million for school safety.
School safety should always be a priority, said Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, D-Parkland, who served as mayor of Parkland at the time of the shooting, and co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud.
“If something’s a priority, it should always be a priority,” Hunschofsky said. “And it shouldn’t become a priority again because something tragic happened.”
The bill requires law enforcement officers to play a role in active shooter drills and training, requires school boards to adopt family reunification plans for the aftermath of an evacuation and requires school districts to certify each year that 80% or more of school personnel have received mandatory youth mental health awareness training.
It also extends the sunset of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission by another three years, through 2026. And it revises the commission’s responsibilities from investigating system failures at Parkland and other, previous mass shootings in Florida and developing recommendations to improving those systems to “monitoring the implementation of school safety” laws.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chair of the commission. “One of the greatest areas of opportunity for many of these active-assailant situations is the behavioral-threat assessments. Most districts are generally in compliance and they have the teams, but just because you have it doesn’t mean you’re doing it right.”
It also authorizes the state’s education commissioner to enforce school safety and security compliance; permits safe school officers to arrest people on charter schools and requires those officers to complete crisis intervention training to improve skills to de-escalate situations on school campuses.
What the bill just signed into law doesn’t do is address gun violence or further controls on weapons and background checks in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school shooting, the grocery store slayings in Buffalo, and other recent mass shootings.
Congress is engaged in bipartisan negotiations to address gun violence, while Democrats in the Florida Legislature have asked their Republican colleagues to vote with them to convene a special session to address new gun legislation.
When asked about the school shooting last week, DeSantis said, “I think, going back to Columbine, this has become something where these deranged psychopaths have certain targets, and some of them go to schools as a way to kind of maximize the trauma to a community. They’re very evil people.
“But what they also are, is they do look for areas where they think they’re going to be able to get away with it. And the Buffalo shooter, for example, said, ‘You know, I’m going places where I don’t have to worry about people concealed carry or anything like that,’ because he wants, they want basically sitting ducks.”
Florida has a robust concealed weapons permit program, although there have been calls to eliminate permits and turn the state into a permitless carry state, something DeSantis said he wants to see happen before he leaves the governor’s office.
Texas already is a state where people can carry guns without getting a permit, which proponents call “constitutional carry.”
Since he’s been governor, DeSantis has addressed school security and other recommendations by the Parkland Commission and signed budgets increasing funding for mental health and school security. But during his tenure, further measures to expand on the ground-breaking gun safety and background measures have failed.
At the time of the Parkland shooting, the mostly NRA-friendly Florida Legislature was already in session. It passed the toughest gun control laws the state had ever seen, including raising the age a person can buy a rifle from 18 to 21, which the NRA sued in federal court to try to block.
The legal age to buy a rifle in Texas is 18.
The Legislature also passed a “red flag” law allowing the courts to prevent people deemed dangerous from owning or buying a firearm, which has led to over 8,000 people having their guns taken away, according to CNN.
There has not been a mass shooting in Florida since those gun reforms were signed into law, which is proof they work, Florida House Democrats said during a zoom call Tuesday.
In their call for a special legislative session, Democrats want to expand the Red Flag law that other states are talking about adopting in the wake of the recent mass shootings. They also want to address high capacity rifle magazines and universal background checks, and intentionally left permitless carry off the call.
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The Department of State has begun polling members to see if three-fifths of the members of both chambers vote in favor of convening a special session to consider proposals addressing gun violence. The polling ends Friday.
“Gun violence is happening everywhere and we have to come forward with a comprehensive approach to save as many lives as we can,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando said, noting that the six-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando is June 12. Forty-nine people, mostly people of color in the LGBTQ community, were killed that night.
Previous efforts in recent years by Democrats to call special sessions using this method have failed in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
They don’t have specific bills to address, Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said, because they want to work with their Republican colleagues on bipartisan measures. “We are trying as hard as we are to reach across the aisle to get something done,” Geller said. “We’re optimistic that this will be met in the right way.“
They don’t want to take anyone’s guns away, either, they said.
“If it were up to me, we’d be calling for an assault weapons ban,” Geller said. “But this package is designed to get our colleagues across the aisle down for common sense things most people in Florida and across the country support.”
South Florida Sun Sentinel staff writer Natalia Galicza contributed to this report.