TALLAHASSEE – In a debate that showed sharp divisions about how best to protect children and teachers, the Florida House on Monday approved a bill that could lead to some public-school employees or volunteers carrying guns on campus.
House members voted 71-44 to approve the bill (HB 753), which would allow school districts to decide whether to designate people who could carry concealed weapons on schools grounds. Those people would have to be trained and have military or law-enforcement backgrounds.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who has long backed such proposals, said gun-free schools have become a "sterile target" that can be attacked by deranged people. The debate Monday included references to mass shootings at places such as a Newton, Connecticut, elementary school and at Fort Hood in Texas.
"Gun-free zones are the most dangerous places in America," said Rep. Neil Combee, a Polk City Republican and supporter of the bill. "We all know that. Whether it's Fort Hood or the school shootings, most of the mass killings these days occur in these gun-free zones."
But critics said the state should instead spend money to put trained law-enforcement officers, known as school resource officers, on campuses throughout the state. At one point, Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, raised the specter of the bill leading to someone like "Barney Fife" — the bumbling character in the old "Andy Griffith Show" — having a gun on school grounds.
"We don't need amateurs bringing guns to the fight," said Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville.
The vote was along almost straight party lines, with Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, crossing to join Republicans in supporting the measure.
It remains questionable, however, whether the Senate will pass the bill. The Senate's version (SB 968) was approved by one committee last month but did not get heard in three other committees.
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, would allow school superintendents, with the approval of their school boards, to designate people who could carry guns on school grounds. The designees could be honorably discharged veterans, active-duty members of the military or current or retired law-enforcement officers. They also would need to have concealed-weapons licenses and complete a school-safety program created by the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission.
Steube and other supporters said the bill could particularly help protect schools in rural areas. For example, Steube said police respond within six to 11 minutes to schools in suburban areas of Sarasota and Manatee counties, but that the response times are longer in rural areas.