In the wake of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018, the state legislature established the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program to ensure that trained and vetted volunteer school staff could serve as an immediate armed response in the case of another active assailant attack on a school. The program requires that all staff members serving as a Guardian undergo 144 hours of training, as well as pass psychological tests and a drug screening.
So far, according to the Florida Department of Education, 43 counties in the state have adopted the program, but gun control activists have been fighting to scrap the idea ever since the Guardian program was enacted into law. Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety lobbied against an expansion of the law last year, even as a group of parents and the Florida League of Women Voters filed suit to shut down the program through the courts.
A Duval County judge originally ruled that while school guardians are not specifically included in exceptions to the state law allowing firearms on school campuses, the 2018 law authorizing Guardians “in support of school-sanctioned activities” allowed the volunteers to be armed on campus.
The plaintiffs appealed that decision to the state’s 1st District Court of Appeals, and on Tuesday a three-judge panel heard oral arguments from both sides.
School-safety laws passed in 2018 and amended in 2019 don’t specifically authorize school guardians to carry weapons, Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer Rachel Miller-Ziegler, who represents the plaintiffs, argued Tuesday.
The plaintiffs are relying in part on a provision in Florida law that prohibits people from possessing any firearm or other weapon, “including a razor blade or box cutter, except as authorized in support of school-sanctioned activities.”
The exception for “school-sanctioned activities” for school-safety officers applies only to box cutters and razor blades, not to guns, Miller-Ziegler argued Tuesday.
Yeah, you read that right. The SPLC attorney is actually arguing that school safety officers can carry a box cutter or a razor blade to protect students, but not a firearm. That argument was greeted with a great deal of skepticism by Judge Timothy Osterhaus, one of the three judges on the appellate panel.
“I mean, come on, really,” he said, pointing out that her interpretation would mean that the law authorizes box cutters but not guns for someone who has “more shooting training than somebody” who served in Vietnam. “It goes a little bit beyond box cutters.”
Sonja Harrell, who’s representing the school board in Duval County, agreed that interpreting state statutes to allow Guardians to carry box cutters but not firearms is ludicrous. She pointed out that there are multiple parts of the legislation that refer to the carrying and discharge of firearms, but nothing that mentions box cutters or razor blades.
“They have to report a discharge of a firearm in the performance of his or her duties. That right there contemplates that these school guardians are going to be using firearms in their performance of their duties,” she argued. “To go through all that training by the sheriff … and then only allow them to have box cutters would not be a reasonable construction of the statute.”
But Judge Scott Makar said the Legislature “could have made this clear and they didn’t.”
The result is a “compendium of statues” that includes a law that gives “clues about” lawmakers’ intent, the judge said.
“It’s almost like if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, well maybe it’s a duck, but the Legislature didn’t actually say that specifically,” Makar said.
I disagree. The intent of the state legislature in establishing the Guardian program was clear; to have an armed response on school campuses in case of an active shooter. The program requires that Guardians undergo more than 100 hours of training, including the use of firearms. It requires that applicants possess a concealed carry license in Florida. It makes no sense to presume that the lawmakers who approved the Guardian legislation really only wanted to school staff to take on an active shooter with a razor blade.
No matter what the appeals court decides, this case is likely going up to the Florida State Supreme Court, where hopefully a majority of judges will reach the common sense decision that that the state’s Guardian program isn’t meant to ensure that students are protected by staff armed with box cutters. Supporters of the program in the state legislature might want to start working on a backup plan, however, and introduce another bill that makes it crystal clear that school safety officers have the legal authority to carry on school grounds in defense of the students in their care.