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Florida legislature backs new gun restrictions after Parkland school shooting

Florida state lawmakers passed a gun safety package March 7 that raises the legal age for buying rifles and imposes a waiting period to purchase certain guns. (Video: Reuters)

Florida lawmakers bucked the National Rifle Association on Wednesday to pass new firearms regulations and create a program for arming some school employees in a rare act of Republican compromise on the divisive issue of gun violence.

The response to the slayings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., signaled a major shift for a state known as a legal laboratory for gun rights activists. It could become a blueprint for other states looking at new measures to address mass shootings.

A bipartisan vote of 67 to 50 in the state House ended an emotional three-week process, during which the state’s legislative leadership toured the bloodstained hallways at the high school and thousands of students marched on the state capitol in Tallahassee to demand change.

After weeks of debate, lawmakers approved a bill that would impose a three-day waiting period for most purchases of long guns and raise the minimum age for purchasing those weapons to 21. The legislation also includes millions of dollars to improve school security and train and arm school employees.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) vowed on Feb. 27 to pass legislation that would make it "virtually impossible" for anyone with a mental illness to use a gun. (Video: Reuters)

The action comes as federal efforts to further regulate guns and improve the federal background check system have sputtered in Washington, caught up in the formidable political divide that has undermined previous attempts to tighten rules for firearms.

The U.S. Senate has not scheduled any debate on gun legislation, with a bipartisan bill on background checks stalled. The House of Representatives is only planning a vote next week on a new grant program to educate teachers and students about how to identify signs of school violence and intervene when it breaks out.

President Trump, who plans to meet with leaders of the video game industry Thursday, has not put forward his own school safety proposal, after initially saying he supported arming teachers, raising the age for some gun purchases and even removing guns from people deemed dangerous before a judicial review.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who supports most but not all of the provisions in the state bill and is exploring a U.S. Senate bid, reiterated his opposition to arming teachers Wednesday but stopped short of threatening a veto.

“I am going to read the bill, and I am going to talk to parents,” he told reporters in the state capitol. “My goal is that this never happens again to a parent in our state.”

In addition to the waiting period and an increase in the minimum age, the bill also would ban the possession or sale of bump stocks, which allow semiautomatic rifles to fire more rapidly.

Such devices were not used in the Feb. 14 killings. However, they were used in the mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert in October that left 58 people dead.

Florida lawmakers decided on a broad spectrum of measures to respond to the shooting, including money to raze and rebuild the school building where the shooting occurred, funds for a memorial to the 17 killed and money for an investigation into potential law enforcement failures around the Stoneman Douglas attack.

State law enforcement would get new powers to temporarily remove weapons from people deemed to be a risk, and there would be a new judicial process to remove guns and ammunition from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.

These so-called “risk protection orders” have become a top-tier priority for gun-control lobbyists, and lawmakers in 30 states have introduced or plan bills to give judges greater powers to remove guns. Five states, including California, Indiana and Connecticut, have the laws in place.

The Florida bill also provides nearly $100 million to improve school security and $67 million to fund a new sheriff program that would allow school districts to voluntarily train and arm employees who do not exclusively teach in the classroom. These new “school marshals” would have to pass 132 hours of law enforcement training, a background check and additional diversity training.

The bill instructs state law enforcement to set up a new mobile app that would allow members of the public, including students, to anonymously report dangerous threats, and it funds additional school mental-health services and security officers. There are also funds for a $1 million memorial to those who died in the shooting.

The bill does not address a central demand of the Stoneman Douglas students to ban the sale of assault weapons, such as the semiautomatic rifle the alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz used at the high school.

The state Senate passed the measure Monday, with three Democrats joining 17 Republicans to vote yes. Democrats in both houses expressed concern with the bill because it lacked an assault-weapons ban and armed school personnel, a measure that was especially concerning to black lawmakers who cited studies that show racial discrimination in school discipline.

In the days leading up to the vote, the NRA’s Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, issued an “emergency alert” to members asking them to contact Republicans and demand they vote no. “Neither the 3-day waiting period on all rifles and shotguns, raising the age from 18 to 21 to buy any firearm, or the bump stock ban will have any effect on crime,” she wrote.

But Republican leadership did not bend. In the closing debate, many lawmakers made reference to the outpouring of public input they had received in recent weeks, and several House members struggled to hold back tears as they described what had happened in the school.

“I have been called a murderer,” said Rep. Thomas Leek (R), of Daytona Beach, who voted for the bill. “I have been told I don’t respect the Constitution.” He said he ultimately decided to block out the outside lobbying and make the decision alone.

While lawmakers were finishing the debate in Tallahassee, a grand jury in Broward County Wednesday indicted the 19-year-old Cruz on 17 counts of first-degree premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder for the shooting at Stoneman Douglas.