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Florida's confusing gun bill: It's actually a win for reform

"Arm the teachers" got headlines, but that was the flashy cover for a bill that promises some real reforms


Amanda Marcotte
March 9, 2018 9:59AM (UTC)

After any school shooting, there is inevitably a chorus of gun nuts who rise up to say that the solution is to arm the teachers. Typically that gets floated by right-wing extremists and ignored by everyone else. After the Parkland, Florida, shooting, this asinine idea actually managed to get some traction in the public debate. That was in large part because Donald Trump, ever the troll, kept bringing it up, and also because the pro-gun right was desperate to find some way -- any way -- to deflect attention from the effective gun control measures the Parkland survivors were demanding.

Because there's such a "look over here!" quality to the arm-the-teachers gambit, I swiftly decided that it wasn't a serious proposal from conservatives, but bait thrown out to distract liberals and drag the debate away from substantive measures and into clown-show fights.

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Then the Florida legislature actually passed an "arm the teachers" in both state houses. So much for my theory that it was just a distraction. But there's another, more intriguing possibility: The gun lobby is both deadly serious about putting more guns in schools and hopes to use "arm the teachers" to sow chaos and slow down any serious momentum towards gun control.

But it's important to note that once you look past the headlines, it's clear that this Florida bill is in no way a win for the NRA and gun manufacturers who have been pushing for guns in school. On the contrary, this bill may be a promising sign that the political winds are turning against the NRA, and even Republicans are starting to fear their ordinary constituents more than the wrath of the gun lobby. "Arm the teachers," if anything, was a desperate tactic by Republicans trying to save face and buy off the NRA, rather than a sincere effort to get a gun holster on every kindergarten teacher.

“There are a lot of long-term goals to be accomplished in Florida, in terms of gun legislation, but this has accomplished what [Parkland survivors] were hoping to achieve immediately," Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America told Salon. Her group is cautiously supporting the Florida bill, despite the "arm the teachers" provision, because the bill has a number of serious reforms, including raising the state's gun-purchase age to 21 and instituting "red flag" measures to remove guns from dangerous people. 

On the flip side, the NRA-ILA, the lobbying arm of the NRA, issued an emergency alert, portraying the bill as a gun grab and demanding, "LEAVE THE RIGHTS OF LAW-ABIDING GUN OWNERS ALONE."

The bill itself is a tangle of provisions that beautifully illustrates the chaotic state of Florida Republicans, who have been reliable foot soldiers for the NRA for decades but now find themselves confronting the Parkland survivors and other gun safety activists. On one hand, there are promising — if limited — provisions that might actually do something to prevent gun violence, such as a three-day waiting period and an expansion of state powers to remove guns from dangerous people. But the bill is also loaded with a bunch of measures meant to placate the NRA, such as enhanced security measures in schools and, of course, the "arm the teachers" provision.

Watts sounded clear-eyed about why the NRA wants to arm teachers so badly -- and why Republicans are desperately slapping that idea into this bill.

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The principal gun-purchasing demographic, "which is a white man over 50 or 60, is aging out," Watts explained, "The only way to maintain the profit margins the gun manufacturers have had is to cultivate other markets for guns, including schools, by forcing guns into K-12 schools and onto college campuses."

The NRA has explored other strategies to increase gun sales, but the focus on schools needs to be understood primarily as a youth marketing strategy. Selling guns to teachers is not, by itself, the sort of move that will fatten the bottom line for the NRA. But by establishing the idea of guns in schools, the NRA is accessing an audience of young, unshaped people and making them believe that seeing guns everywhere is normal and desirable.

Watts further agreed that "arm the teachers" is both a marketing strategy to sell guns and a way to hijack the political debate, turning it away from discussion of substantive gun control measures.

“The president is also meeting with video game makers, which is the same straw man that the NRA brought out after the Sandy Hook school shooting," she said. "They want you to look in all different directions, everything but what the problem really is, which is a lot of guns and very few gun laws.”

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The same is true of the security gambit Florida's legislature pulled, by budgeting millions of dollars for armed guards in schools, even though that tactic proved useless in the Parkland. But it gives Republicans the cover to claim they're doing something about school shootings, even when they are trying to do as little as possible about gun violence. It also creates a new revenue opportunity for gun manufacturers who supply the weapons and often the other "security theater" apparatus.

Even though this bill's provisions fall far short of what Watts' group sees as a robust gun safety program, she sees this is a political victory for the gun safety movement — and one that can build more victories in the future. The specific policies in the bill are important, but the big-picture issue, Watts argued, was getting a bill the NRA hates passed by a Republican legislature, which demonstrates that the group's power is waning and creates an opportunity for gun safety activists to push harder.

As for the "arm the teachers" provision, its value as political showmanship over substantive policy is evident in the details. For one thing, it isn't "arm the teachers" after all. Only non-teaching staff and coaches can carry guns — and only after a training program that is likely to be unpopular. Secondly, school districts can opt out entirely. Activists are already gearing up to go from district to district, emphasizing the dangers and the legal liability to which schools will open themselves up if they allow guns on campus. (Insurance companies frequently refuse to cover schools in other states that toy with this idea.) The NRA gets a win here, in terms instilling the idea of guns in schools, but if kids never actually see teachers packing heat, it won't have the normalizing effect the gun lobby longs for.

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Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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