‘Guns, School Safety, Mental Health’: Tallahassee debates new gun legislation

Michelle Marchante/News Director

Gun control legislation is moving rapidly in Florida’s Capitol following the school shooting in Parkland, FL, which left 17 dead, multiple injured and a stream of student protesters calling for action.

Senate Bill 7026, also known as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which passed the Florida Senate Committee on Rules and the Appropriations Committee on Monday, Feb. 26, focuses on new gun regulations, school “hardening” and mental health — three aspects also found in Florida Governor Rick Scott’s proposal.

The bill must now be voted on in the Senate. The Florida House Appropriations Committee also passed a similar bill which will be heading to the House for a vote, as of the time of publication.

The legislation — if passed and signed into law by Scott — would also prohibit individuals under the age of 21 from purchasing firearms. Law enforcement, military and correctional officers would be exempted. The purchasing or selling of bump stocks, a tool which would let firearms shoot faster, would also be prohibited.

The most significant and controversial difference in the bill compared to Scott’s proposed plan is the voluntary “Florida Sheriff’s Marshal Program.” The program would allow selected teachers to conceal carry guns on school grounds. The program, which has an estimate cost of $67 million, would provide teachers who volunteer 132 hours of training with local law enforcement to carry in the classroom.

The state, Politico reports, would pay for the training, along with the teacher’s background check, drug test and psychological exams, and would provide the teacher a one-time $500 stipend. However, the school superintendent or the school board would have to approve of this program. The goal is to have 10 armed teachers in every school.

Scott, however, opposes the program.

“I disagree with arming teachers,” Scott said during the press conference. “My focus is on bringing in law enforcement. I think you need to have individuals who are trained, well trained.”

FIU Police Department Chief Alexander Casas also opposes the idea.

“For me as the person tasked with restoring order to chaos it would complicate my ability to do that. I think it would add mayhem to chaos,” Casas said. “Imagine the scenario right now that police officers are running into a building where we got reports of shots fire, we have a basic description of the perpetrator, a real general one, not a very good one, but as we run into the building, we don’t see one person with a gun but five people with a gun, we have to make a split decision on who is friend or foe.”

However, third-year law student Dane Stuhlsatz supports the idea of having armed teachers on school campuses but disagrees with the additional requirements needed for them to carry.

“I don’t agree with…additional licensure of the state, on top of what already exists. For example, if I’m a teacher and I’ve gone through all the necessary hoops to get a concealed carry license, that should be enough,” Stuhlsatz said.

The new legislation would also create consistent active shooter drills, have school “hardening” evaluations and provide mental health counselors in every school. The drills would be held the first week of every semester, according to Scott, and the evaluations would identify school vulnerabilities.

Once the vulnerabilities are identified, Scott said the schools would be required to correct them and this could include installing metal detectors, steel doors and bullet-proof windows.

Hadi Alhaffar, an adjunct faculty professor at FIU’s School of Architecture and an instructor at DASH, agrees with having more active shooter drills, but disagrees with arming teachers.

“I feel like even if they are teachers [carrying guns] that’s not really solving the issue…putting more guns in an environment with student’s isn’t solving the problem,” Alhaffar said. “The training isn’t enough. The whole thing is insane. This is not a solution.”

The amendment which would have banned the selling or purchasing of semi-automatic weapons, something that the Stoneman Douglas survivors had been advocating for, was voted out of the bill.

The bill also supports Scott’s proposal of having at least one law enforcement officer in every public school. While the legislation doesn’t specify details, Scott would like to see one officer for every 1,000 students in a school and said this must be implemented by the start of the 2018-2019 school year. It’s not specified if this requirement would also be for charter and private schools.

Casas thinks this solution would be a major deterrent for potential shooters, but it won’t make the risk disappear 100 percent, he said. Casas recognizes that additional funding would be needed in the beginning; not just for law enforcement to increase their police force staff but to the counties, particularly small ones, who might not be able to afford this change.

The bill would also create what Scott referred to during his press conference on Friday, Feb. 23, as a “Violent Threat Restraining Order.” This new system would give law enforcement the ability to request a risk protection order from the court.

If approved by the court, the order would temporarily prohibit a person that the court deems is at high risk of harming themselves or others from purchasing, possessing or accessing any firearms for a maximum of 12 months or until a court order states otherwise.

The new law would also give law enforcement the ability to hold any firearm or ammunition from a person who is taken into custody for examination under the Baker Act for at least 72 hours, or until the person appears at the agency to retrieve the weapon.

Casas supports the restraining order concept, but is concerned about how the process would be like, especially if the court decides the guns need to be confiscated.

While the process has yet to be described by the Florida legislature, Casas thinks the best solution is to strengthen the Baker Act laws so that police can take away firearms during Baker Acting until a court tells them to return the weapons, just like with domestic violence cases.

However, the problem with the Baker Act, he said, is that the individual is given a mental health assessment not a risk assessment.

A mental health assessment only examines an individual to see if they have a mental illness while a risk assessment examines if a person poses a violent threat to themselves or others.

This is why Casas is also concerned with the potential language that may be used in the new laws regarding mental health.

“Statistics show that out of the mass shootings that have occurred throughout history, only 22 percent of individuals conducting mass shootings have been mentally ill, that we know of,” he said. “So to stigmatize the mentally ill and say ‘you’re all violent,’ that’s a big leap and we gotta be careful not to do that.”

Stuhlsatz is also concerned over the language and would like there to be more “open dialogue,” between the legislature and the public over what guidelines the courts would follow to determine what constitutes someone as unable to purchase or maintain a firearm.

“[W]hat we’re talking about is an inalienable right so this isn’t something that can just be passed on a whim… As soon you take your first breath you have a right to self defense, and your ability to defend yourself is only as effective as the tool you have to do so with,” Stuhlsatz said.

The way the law currently stands, those who are convicted felons or have a domestic violence restraining order cannot legally purchase or possess a firearm. If mental health were added to the mix, Casas believes the mental health and risk assessments would have to be combined in order to create a definition as to what could be an “evident threat.”

However, the inclusion of mental health to federal background checks would require additional law amendments as all medical records, including mental health, are private under state law, making it inaccessible during a background check.

Stuhlsatz’s biggest concern in adding mental health to the background check is how vague the legislation might be.

“I wouldn’t be able to support something on the front end without seeing the specific measures are proposed…The problem i see with mental background checks is who defines those terms and how narrowly tailored are they, because if they are spread too broad then you’ll catch people in the net who have no business being caught,” Stuhlsatz said.

Additionally, Stuhlsatz would rather see the legislation focus more on the proposed committee meant to investigate the Stoneman Douglas shooting to see why the “multilayer law enforcement failures”  happened.

For Stuhlsatz, examining and fixing these problems would be more beneficial than providing police more power or creating new laws.

Scott also mentioned creating a crisis prevention committee in each school to identify potential risks, something that sounds similar to FIU’s Behavior Intervention Team. This team meets on a regular basis to discuss students of concern, as well as faculty or staff members when needed to help connect dots and create a personalized plan of action, according to Casas.

And despite the legislation not mentioning college or university campuses, Casas plans on increasing police, faculty, staff and student training for emergency incidents. The University will also be increasing police staff and President Mark B. Rosenberg will be making active shooter training mandatory for each building. They are also looking into creating instructional FIU-based videos or active shooter drills that would include students as well.


This article is Part 1 of the “Florida Gun Control Watch” series, which will follow the decisions made in Tallahassee over the future of guns, school safety and mental health.


Feature Image retrieved from myFlorida Department of State website.

About the Author

Michelle Marchante
Michelle Marchante is the 2018-2019 Editor-in-Chief of PantherNOW. Majoring in broadcast journalism, she lives and breathes web, print, radio and TV news 24/7. You can connect with her on Twitter @TweetMichelleM

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