JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responded to the latest U.S. school shooting with legislation aimed at improving school safety and increasing student mental-health monitoring, rejecting stricter gun legislation pushed by Democrats and the Biden administration that includes a proposed ban on assault-style weapons.
The state legislation marks another successful effort by Mr. DeSantis to implement Republican policies that buck the Biden administration agenda and which have helped to increase Mr. DeSantis’ popularity with the GOP beyond the Sunshine State.
The 43-year-old DeSantis is leading opponents by double-digits in his bid for a second term as governor, according to the latest statewide poll, and he is also considered a top contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He prevailed over former President Donald Trump in a weekend straw poll taken at the Western Conservative Summit in Colorado.
His string of legislative and policy victories, including a booming state economy, have elevated Mr. DeSantis’ profile and popularity.
“DeSantis has clearly separated himself from the other ‘would-be contenders,’ should Trump take a pass,” said Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy.
Mr. DeSantis has rejected suggestions that he is plotting a run for the White House. But he promotes his agenda and frequently attacks President Biden as though he’s running for president, and not for a second term as governor.
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On Monday, Mr. DeSantis criticized the president’s response to an ongoing national shortage of baby formula. Last week, he railed against the Biden administration’s energy and economic policies that have raised gasoline prices and inflation, and have caused the president’s approval ratings to sink to alarming lows.
“He has created the circumstances that have led to this resounding disapproval of what he has done,” Mr. DeSantis said of the president to an audience of supporters in The Villages last week at an event to promote a record state budget surplus. “He would have been better off, and we would be better off, if he had simply got into office and did nothing, rather than what he has done so far.”
Mr. DeSantis gained national attention by rejecting the Biden administration’s Covid lockdowns, mask requirements and vaccine mandates, opening up the state at the height of the pandemic.
He made national headlines again this year when he took on Disney, stripping the massive and iconic theme park of its special independent tax district after corporate leaders pledged to help overturn a new state law banning schools from teaching LGBTQ issues to young students.
The initiatives have elicited praise from Republicans, and significant criticism from Democrats and others who said his policies would harm LGBTQ children or lead to higher Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Mr. DeSantis’ response to Covid has been largely vindicated, according to data showing Florida fared as well as, or in some cases better than, other states that imposed stricter Covid measures.
Last month, a newly released report from the state inspector general rejected widely publicized claims by former state health department analyst Rebekah Jones that Mr. DeSantis had rigged Covid data to downplay infections.
Ms. Jones appeared in multiple media stories claiming she was fired for refusing to manipulate Covid positivity rates. She and many in the media accused Mr. DeSantis of seeking to hide real Covid numbers in order to justify rejection of the mandates and lockdowns.
But the state inspector general, Michael Bennett, found Ms. Jones’ claims to be “unsubstantiated” and “unfounded.”
In another victory, last week the Special Olympics backed down from a requirement that participants get vaccinated for Covid to participate in the Orlando games, after Mr. DeSantis threatened the organization with a $27.5 million fine.
Mr. DeSantis had imposed a state ban on vaccine mandates in November, to counter Mr. Biden’s federal Covid vaccine mandate.
He showcased his school safety initiative on Friday, announcing the state budget includes $400 million for safety and mental health initiatives in the state’s public schools.
Mr. DeSantis said he plans to soon sign an additional school safety bill, which won unanimous passage in the state legislature, that would establish a list of new requirements aimed at preventing school shootings and responding to them faster and more effectively if they occur.
It mandates emergency drills in schools that require the participation of local law enforcement, and a new requirement that school districts annually certify that at least 80% of school personnel have received the mandatory youth mental health awareness training.
The bill also requires schools to establish a reunification plan for families and students in the event of a school shooting or other emergency.
The measure also extends a safety commission, established in the wake of the Parkland shooting, that provides recommendations to the state.
The measure excludes new gun-control provisions. The state in 2018 incorporated “red flag” laws to seize guns from people deemed dangerous or unstable, and it raised the age to purchase guns from 18 to 21 in response to the Parkland shooting, which was carried out by a mentally ill teenager.
Mr. DeSantis, meanwhile, has not backed down on his pledge to sign into law a bill that would allow individuals to carry concealed guns without a permit, a plan that has attracted significant criticism from Democrats and gun-control advocates, particularly in the wake of the latest mass school shooting in Texas.
“I can’t tell you if it’s going to be next week, six months, but I can tell you before I am done as governor, we will have a signature on that bill,” Mr. DeSantis said last month.
Last week, Mr. DeSantis outlined his school safety plan, and noted at the recent mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, the shooter sought a location where he knew nobody would be carrying a gun because the law prohibited it.
The governor also promoted the state’s effort to hold law enforcement accountable if they do not respond adequately to a school shooting. Mr. DeSantis fired the Broward County Sheriff following the shooting in Parkland, when it was determined a school safety officer remained outside the building instead of going inside to confront the shooter.
Police in Uvalde, Texas are accused of remaining outside a classroom at Robb Elementary School for nearly an hour while the 18-year-old shooter killed 19 students and two teachers.
Mr. Biden has rejected hardening schools as an inadequate response to the seemingly unabated string of school shootings, and instead favors tougher gun control laws, including a ban on assault-style weapons like the one used in the Uvalde shooting.
Mr. DeSantis said schools and people in group settings should be better able to defend themselves against mass shooters.
“They basically wanted sitting ducks,” Mr. DeSantis said of those who have carried out the shootings. “What I think we’ve done in Florida since I’ve been governor is make sure there’s adequate security at schools, make sure that we follow the recommendations of the Parkland commission.”
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