By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Three years after a mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School led lawmakers to pass a major school-safety bill, an appeals court Thursday rejected a challenge to allowing armed “guardians” on campuses.
A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld a Duval County circuit judge’s ruling that lawmakers had authorized guardians — who are not law-enforcement officers — to carry guns to bolster school safety.
Attorneys for three Duval County students and the League of Women Voters of Florida argued that allowing guardians to be armed violates a state law that has long prohibited people, except law-enforcement officers, from carrying guns on campuses.
The appeals court, however, detailed changes the Legislature made in the school-safety law that pointed to an intent to create an exception for school guardians from the prohibition on being armed.
For example, Judge M. Kemmerly Thomas wrote in an 11-page main opinion that the “Legislature specifically declared school guardians to be acting in a law enforcement capacity when responding to an active assailant emergency.”
Also, she cited requirements that the Legislature put into law for guardians, including “many hours of firearms training and possessing a permit to carry a concealed firearm. Perhaps the most persuasive of the requirements is that a school guardian must have ongoing weapons inspections by the sheriff.”
Judge Scott Makar joined Thomas and Judge Timothy Osterhaus in the main opinion and wrote a concurring opinion that described a “statutory interpretation conundrum.” But said “a ‘fair reading’ of all the relevant statutes in tandem evinces a legislative purpose in favor of allowing school guardians to have firearms on campus.”
“It would be anomalous and thwart the legislative purpose for their existence, if certified school guardians with concealed weapons permits and such extensive firearms and related training and certifications, were prohibited from possessing a firearm while on campus attempting to maintain order,” Makar wrote. “It would be akin to prohibiting tradespersons, technicians and other skilled members in the workforce from possessing the tools necessary to do their jobs, a result the Legislature could not have intended. The statutory pieces of the puzzle, when patched together, sharpen the focus of legislative intent and paint a clearer picture: a legislative judgment that school guardians be trained in the use and possession of firearms while performing their duties as first-line protectors of students, teachers and others on school campuses from violent acts.”
Allowing armed school guardians, who can be school employees or security guards, was a highly controversial part of the school-safety law passed after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting that killed 17 students and faculty members.
Opponents argued that only trained law-enforcement officers should be allowed to carry guns at schools and that allowing armed guardians would not make students safer and could lead to scenarios where gun-related accidents could happen. Supporters said, however, that the guardian program was needed to ensure that schools would have armed people immediately available to thwart threats in active-shooter cases.
The lawsuit was filed in 2018 after Duval County began using “school safety assistants” under the guardian laws.