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How Florida lawmakers responded to a tragic school shooting four years ago, and the impact today

Mark Wallheiser
Florida Rep. Jared Moskowitz walks around a group of 20 college students and activists as they stage a die-in on the fourth floor rotunda between the House and Senate chambers while the House took up the school safety bill at the Florida Capital on Tuesday, March 6, 2018.

It’s been four years since a gunman killed 17 students and injured 17 others at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Next month will make it six years since a gunman killed 49 people and hurt 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

In the past two weeks, two other mass shootings — one killing 10 Black people in Buffalo, New York, the second killing 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas — has thrust gun violence back into the political arena.

There was no material legislative response after the Pulse nightclub massacre regarding guns. After the Parkland school shooting, Florida lawmakers did pass a change to the state gun laws, poured millions of dollars into school security, and led to a red flag law — allowing judges to take away someone’s guns under certain circumstances.

One requirement is for school districts to have a safety officer at every school. Chief Edwin Lopez oversees the nearly 500 police officers in Miami-Dade schools.

"Whether it’s active shooter training, active assailant training or mental health training, our school resource officers are equipped with the necessary skill set to really work collaboratively with the school administrators, teachers and staff to really address concerning behaviors," he said.

A school resource officer failed to stop the school shooting in Parkland, and there are questions now about how law enforcement responded to the school this week in Texas.

Gregory Tony was appointed sheriff in Broward County by Gov. Ron DeSantis after DeSantis removed the sheriff who oversaw the response to the school shooting in Parkland.

This week, Tony said he was frustrated by the lack of legislation to prevent gun violence. "We have members in Congress who have absorbed the shootings going back to Sandy Hook, and yet nothing has changed," he said. Tony said he supports universal background checks for people buying guns.

"Schools are safer as a result of the law we passed in Florida," said Broward County Commissioner Jared Moskowitz. He was a Democratic state representative when the Parkland shooting happened. His district included the school, and he is a MSD graduate.

Changes included the first significant change to Florida's gun ownership laws in years. After Parkland, with bipartisan support and signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Florida raised the minimum age to own any gun in Florida to 21 years old. The law also imposed a three-day waiting period to purchase a gun.

Phil Sears
Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, closes on his Senate Bill 7030: Implementation of Legislative Recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which will give teachers the option to be armed, on Tuesday April 23, 2019, in the Florida Senate. Diaz becomes the state education commissioner on June 1.

Another change in Florida after Parkland was the creation of the guardian program allowing school employees to carry guns on campus after receiving training. According to the Department of Education, 45 county school districts participate in the program, though incoming Education Commissioner Manny Diaz did not know how many guardians are in Florida schools.

"What I do know is that you've seen a kind of a stabilizing force when it comes to the fear that initially existed and that a lot of the districts have seen the value in being able to augment the (security) force.," said Diaz.

There are familiar calls today for gun legislation and school security in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has dismissed gun restrictions efforts in his state. So why was similarly Republican-dominated legislature in Florida able to pass reforms after a school shooting?

Here's what Moskowitz told member station WLRN in March of 2018: "There were enough members of the Legislature that were impacted by the idea that this happened — a Sandy Hook sort of event — happened in the state of Florida. I think they were impacted by the students coming and talking to them."

Today, Moskowitz also points to bringing the then-legislative leaders to the scene of the crime. "I made them see what it looks like when a school has bullet holes through the window, when backpacks are piled up outside, when homework is scattered in the parking lot. When you look down the hallway and you see blood against the wall. And I said to them, 'This has to be different.'"

One difference was a red flag law. This allows law enforcement to ask a judge to remove weapons from someone they believe has a series mental illness or has made threats. It has been used thousands of times since becoming law in Florida.

In Congress, the House passed two background check bills last year. One would close the loophole allowing some gun sales if a background check is not completed within three days. The second would expand background checks for all gun sales and gun transfers — not just sales from licensed gun dealers. Moskowitz, who is running for a congressional seat in South Florida, supports both measures.

"We've got to at least start making progress," he said. "If we continue to do nothing, this is going to continue to happen at some high school in Parkland. Then it's an elementary school in Texas. Soon it'll be some school in New Jersey. It'll be some school in Maryland. It'll be some school in Louisiana. It'll be some school in Illinois. This is coming to every neighborhood. And until we act as the United States, the 50 states, rather than piecemeal it, we're not going to solve this as a country."

When Diaz was nominated in April to become the state's education commission, he told The Florida Roundup the "No. 1 thing is here we're facing a teacher shortage there's an issue with recruitment and retention."

Diaz said school violence hurts teacher recruiting and retention. It's one reason why he thinks the state Legislature will "continue to refine the systems that we have put in place to assure not only the safety of our students, but the safety of our teachers."

Florida lawmakers may take up an effort to expand gun laws. In April, DeSantis made this pledge: "I'm pretty confident that I will be able to sign a constitutional carry into law."

Constitutional carry is shorthand for allowing people who legally own a gun to carry it in public, hidden or in plain sight, without an additional permit or training.

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