Florida House debates amendments to school safety bill
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — All eyes are now on Republican Gov. Rick Scott to see if he'll sign the Florida legislature's narrowly approved response to last month's high school massacre of 17 people, a measure that isn't what he called for, falls short of what survivors demanded and challenges National Rifle Association orthodoxy.
"I'm going to take the time and I'm going to read the bill and I'm going to talk to families," said Scott, who wouldn't say whether he'll sign it.
The measure would raise the minimum age to buy rifles from 18 to 21 and create a waiting period on sales of the weapons. It also would create a so-called guardian program, enabling school employees and many teachers to carry handguns if they go through law enforcement training and their school district agrees to participate.
Other provisions would create new mental health programs for schools; establish an anonymous tip line where students and others could report threats to schools, ban bump stocks and improve communication between schools, law enforcement and state agencies.
Scott has gotten top marks from the NRA in the past for supporting gun-rights measures, but he broke with the lobbying group after last month's slayings, calling for raising the minimum age to purchase any type of gun. He doesn't support arming teachers, however, and had wanted lawmakers to adopt his own $500 million proposal to put one or more law enforcement officer in every school.
The NRA opposes raising age limits to buy weapons or imposing new waiting periods. During the legislative debate, the NRA tweeted: "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."
The bill's narrow passage reflected a mix of Republicans and Democrats in support and opposition. Survivors were split as well, but Andrew Pollack, who lost his 18-year-old daughter Meadow in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and Ryan Petty, who lost his 14-year-old daughter Alaina, said there was enough good in the bill that it should pass.
"More needs to be done, and it's important for the country to be united in the same way the 17 families united in support of this bill," Pollack said after the vote. "My precious daughter Meadow's life was taken, and there's nothing I can do to change that, but make no mistake, I'm a father and I'm on a mission. I'm on a mission to make sure I'm the last dad to ever read a statement of this kind."
Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a former Parkland city commissioner, ended the eight hours of debate with an emotional account of seeing the high school after the shooting, attending victims' funerals and working with students and families while the House was forming the legislation. He broke down in tears after talking about how his 4-year-old son's writing teacher lost her daughter in the attack.
"You don't need to stand with me. I don't need you to stand with me. I need you to stand with the families," Moskowitz said.
Republican Rep. Jay Fant, who is running for attorney general, said raising the minimum age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 was unconstitutional, and he voted no.
"I just can't imagine that Nikolas Cruz can commit such a heinous crime and then as a result we tell, potentially, a 20-year-old single mother living alone that she cannot purchase a firearm to defend herself," Fant said.
Democratic Rep. Kristin Jacobs, whose district includes Stoneman Douglas, voted yes, even though she doesn't like the idea of arming teachers.
"There is a cultural divide in this room, in this state and across the country. And there's a bill before us that is not perfect," she said.
Cruz was formally charged on Wednesday with 17 counts of first-degree murder. The grand jury in Fort Lauderdale also indicted the 19-year-old on 17 counts of attempted murder for the Valentine's Day massacre, which also wounded more than a dozen people.
Cruz's public defender has said he will plead guilty if prosecutors take the death penalty off the table and sentence him to life in prison instead. Prosecutors have 45 days to decide.
James and Kimberly Snead, who gave Cruz a home after his mother died late last year, testified before the grand jury. James Snead and the couple's attorney, Jim Lewis, wore silver "17" pins to honor the victims.
"We'll let justice take its course at this point," Lewis said. "They still don't know what happened, why this happened. They don't have any answers. They feel very badly for everybody."
The governor, who is expected to mount a U.S. Senate campaign to oust incumbent Democrat U.S. Bill Nelson, is in a tough spot, politically, after splitting with President Donald Trump and some Republicans over what should be done.
Nelson mocked Scott as lacking "guts" for skipping an emotionally charged town hall forum attended by survivors of the shooting, and criticized Scott over the incentives Florida has offered to gun manufacturers. Nelson also called for universal background checks and a ban of the types of assault rifles used in the Parkland shooting.
Polls suggest voters in Florida want tougher restrictions than what's in the bill before Scott. A Quinnipiac University poll done more than a week after the shootings said 62 percent support a nationwide ban on "assault weapons" and 96 percent support background checks on all gun buyers. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
Anderson reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Replogle reported from Parkland, Florida. Associated Press writers Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Florida, and Freida Frisaro, David Fischer and Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.