House committee OKs bill to allow guns in schools

By Tim Pulliam, General assignment reporter, tpulliam@wjxt.com
Associated Press
Published On: Apr 02 2014 11:07:56 AM EDT
Updated On: Apr 02 2014 11:46:37 PM EDT

A house bill that would allow school personnel to be armed in Florida school districts cleared a hurdle today.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

A House bill that would allow school personnel to be armed in Florida school districts was approved by the House Justice Appropriations Committee on Wednesday in an 8-4 vote.

House Bill 753 would give schools the option to appoint someone with a law enforcement or military background to take a state-legislated training course to carry.

The issue has been argued nationwide since school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, Virginia Tech University, Columbine High School in Colorado and others. One side believes armed officials are better equipped to handle an emergency situation. The other argues that more guns in schools only increases the odds of something happening.

Under the bill, local school boards or principals would have the option to appoint someone with a military or law enforcement background who also has a concealed weapons permit. Each year the selected staff member would have to complete 48 hours of school safety, and active shooter training and firearms training.

Some local House leaders said the bill will do more harm than good.

"The natural reaction is for people to go overboard," said Rep. Reggie Fullwood, of Jacksonville District 13. "Just because a teacher or administrator, or whomever is armed with a gun, it doesn't mean it will diffuse the situation. It may make the situation worse."

Duval County School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti on Wednesday called the bill "well meaning -- to contribute to the safety of students," but questioned the overall concept of allowing guns in schools.

"I share and have demonstrated my commitment to implementing programs and procedures that improve the safety of Duval County students," Vitti said. "However, an additional presence of guns on campuses does not contribute to the quality learning environment I feel is best. The research is clear: build relationships with kids to curb violence."

The Duval County School District said it has had seven incidents so far this school year of students bringing a gun to school. The most recent was last Thursday at Mandarin High School.

Still, a Mandarin High School teacher who did not want to be identified said he hopes the bill doesn't pass.

"I feel if I am in a position where if I have to be armed to feel safe in my career then I'm already in a dangerous career and that's not where I want to be," said the teacher.

Rep. Charles Van Zandt serves on the justice committee and supports the bill. He thinks schools would appreciate someone trained and armed.

"I think the schools themselves would appreciate knowing that somebody highly trained was there," said Van Zant, R-Palatka. "So that some idiot that brought a gun to school with the intention of killing people could be stopped at a far sooner place than calling law enforcement, which might take a good long time to get there."

Representatives for the Florida School Board Association and Parent Teacher Association opposed the bill. The PTA would rather have further investment in school resource officers and intervention programs.

"FSBA believes that only highly trained professional law enforcement officers can be entrusted with weaponry on our school grounds," said school board representative Ruth Melton.

Some opponents preferred preventative measures instead of allowing more firearms. There was also concern with having volunteers in these positions, regardless of their training.

"There are things we can do other than adding more guns to the school that can keep our children safe," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who has sheriffs in his district on both sides of the issue.

The accompanying Senate bill (SB 968) was approved by the Criminal Justice committee and is waiting to be heard in the Education committee. It wasn't brought up at the last two education meetings.

"If they don't want to do it, they don't have to do it," said Greg Steube, a Republican from Sarasota who sponsors the bill. "My local school board members, who I just met with last week, they had a very different opinion on the legislation and they might actually take advantage of it. Each school board would have the opportunity to decide this for themselves."

HB 753 will now move to the Judiciary Committee.

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