How the Horror of Parkland Led a GOP Politician to Buck His Party

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Michael Daly
·10 min read
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Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Getty/AP
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Getty/AP

A Valentine’s Day card on the blood-spattered floor, along with school papers and shell casings.

Red and white carnations poking out from an abandoned backpack.

Books and binders left open on desks, others scattered in the scramble to escape.

Bullet holes.

More blood, spattered on walls.

“It was as if somebody took a milk jug of blood and just splashed,” Florida State Senate President Bill Galvano told The Daily Beast this week about his visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the aftermath of the mass shooting that left 17 dead on Valentine’s Day of 2018.

Still more blood, some with drag marks, some from where a 14-year-old died after holding open a hallway door for classmates to escape.

Even more blood, where an already wounded 18-year-old tried to shield a classmate with her own body upon the return of the gunman, who shot her five more times, the bullets also killing the other girl.

More scattered school papers.

“These were kids who were learning,” Galvano later said. “Sciences and English and math…”

He bent down.

“I picked up one and just looked at it,” he remembered. “It had to do with civics. I saved it.”

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A fellow visiting legislator, State Sen. Lauren Book, took particular note of another paper, from the Advanced Placement Government class.

“How a bill becomes law,” it read.

Up in a third-floor teachers’ lounge, one of the law enforcement people showed the lawmakers two hurricane-resistant windows that were intact despite bullets fired at point-blank range.

“It just went to show there are things when you’re focusing on hardening that can make a difference,” Galvano later said.

The windows overlook the courtyard where the fleeing students had gathered. The killer apparently had intended to fire down on them with his remaining 180 rounds.

“The death toll would have been unbelievable,” Galvano said.

The killer could have just opened the windows, but “by the grace of God he didn’t figure out how,” Galvano said.

Instead, the killer had decided to end his rampage. He set down his weapon, removed his body armor and slipped away from the building in a Stoneman shirt, but was captured soon after several miles away. He left behind five unexpended magazines and 17 murdered students and teachers.

The killer also left a challenge to the legislators who visited the murder scene two days later.

“It really was something I will never forget,” Galvano told The Daily Beast at the approach of the second anniversary of the killings. “It will stay with me. But in many ways, it was very necessary to truly understand what we were dealing with and what had occurred.”

Galvano departed with the civics sheet. He took out a yellow pad after he returned home and commenced an exercise in civics of his own.

“I outlined what I believed was necessary legislation to address school safety in ways we have not before,” he recalled.

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Galvano is a conservative Republican leader, a supporter of Donald Trump and the Second Amendment, and tax cuts, and school vouchers, and sanctions against sanctuary cities. But from the moment he learned via the TV in his office of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, he was more than anything a legislator who believed we have to do more to keep our school kids safe.

“My immediate response to my staff was, ‘I don’t want to text or tweet. Thoughts and prayers are not enough any more,’” he recalled.

He had not needed to visit the scene to understand that the school lacked the security precautions accorded to the Capitol building.

“There’s no reason that I should be more secure in the Florida Capitol than our children are in our schools,” he said.

But placing armed cops and metal detectors at every entrance of every school was not feasible. And actually seeing the aftermath of the carnage told him that a 19-year-old with mental health problems should not have been able to acquire an assault rifle.

A demand that something had to be done about guns was delivered to all the legislature by a group of Stoneman students who had survived the massacre and arrived by busload at the Capitol. The core group of March For Our Lives had taken or been taking AP Government, which included the “How a bill becomes law” sheet that Sen. Book had seen on the floor after the killings. The course is taught by civics teacher Jeff Foster, who happens to be a Republican. He now served as a kind of coach as the surviving students applied his central lesson in response to the murder of their classmates.

“I tell them in order to make a difference in the country, you need to participate,” Foster was quoted saying. “Unfortunately, we had this event happen and now it’s in live action.”

Legislators of both the Republican majority and Democratic minority agreed that schools needed to be more secure. The students’ demand for a ban on assault weapons was shared by Book, a Democrat who represents Parkland, where Stoneman is located. But most of the senators seemed inclined to do nothing about guns, beyond arming teachers.

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Galvano is the Republican leader in the Senate, but he is also someone who toured the school-turned-killing ground; he can tell you about the eeriness of seeing the cars and bikes and skateboards the ill-fated kids had taken to school that morning, never to return home. He now applied in his own particular way the civics of How to Pass a Bill.

After intense wrangling and compromise and extended debate, the Senate passed on a vote of 20-18 the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act on March 9 of 2018, less than a month after the shooting. The new law raised the minimum age for purchasing a rifle from 18 to 21 and banned bump stocks. The bill also funded a program to address mental health problems of at-risk youth and the creation of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission to investigate the failure to prevent the shooting and the delay in the police response once it started. The commission would further study ways to increase school security. The overall aim of all its work would be to prevent such a thing from happening again.

Book and Democrats who shared her views expressed continued disappointment that assault weapons could still be purchased at all. And they were not pleased by a provision that allowed the arming of some teachers.

But it was still something. An emotional moment came when Galvano and Book hugged on the Senate floor.

“It was one of those things when people were working together to make a difference,” Book later told The Daily Beast. “We had a responsibility to make a difference.”

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The view that something is better than nothing was shared by Everytown for Gun Safety, founded and funded by Mike Bloomberg, who got an education in the evils of illegal firearms when he was New York’s mayor and too often visited emergency rooms after police officers had been shot.

The Bloomberg organization was prompted to contribute $500,000 to a political action committee headed by Galvano. He told The Daily Beast that he never spoke to Bloomberg or his people.

“No conversation prior, during or after,” Glavano told The Daily Beast. “The dollars went into campaign activity for fellow Republicans.”

He reasoned that the Bloomberg people were merely being practical. He translates the contribution as saying, “Look, this is the party in power. They obviously have taken reasonable steps to ensure public safety. We want to be part of the solution.”

Galvano said from his own point of view he would much rather the Any Town contributions go to his committee than to some Democrats. “Those dollars were going somewhere,” he said. “I would much prefer to see them to elect Republicans.”

Galvano said it wasn’t the Bloomberg money, but rather principles such as he had written down on that yellow pad upon returning from Stoneman that prompted him to back a new bill containing further, if decidedly modest gun control provisions this year.

The bill seeks to require background checks on all firearm sales conducted in public places. Private sellers would remain exempt from having to conduct such checks, but would now have to get a notarized statement in which the buyer essentially answers the same questions posed by a background check. Call it an unchecked check.

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The combination of those small provisions and the Bloomberg money prompted some gun rights champions to denounce Galvano last month. They include Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow Pollack, was the 18-year-old who died at Stoneman while trying to shield a classmate with her own body.

“Bill Galvano is trying to give Bloomberg his money’s worth by shoving this gun control bill down the Senate’s throat,” Andrew Pollack tweeted. “That is not what a true conservative does. He is a RINO. Floridians deserve better!”

The NRA was delighted. Donald Trump, Jr. chimed in.

“Any supposed ‘Republican’ who proudly accepts money from Mini Mike Bloomberg and is supportive of his gun control agenda is nothing more than a stone cold RINO,” he was quoted telling The Daily Wire. “The last thing Florida Republicans need is a liberal, gun-grabbing Bloomberg minion leading them in the State Senate.”

Galvano took the position that the legislature would determine the bill’s fate. He cannot be accused of acting out of political self-interest, as term limits will require him to depart the Senate at the end of this year. He will leave with the feeling that he lived up to his responsibility as taught in civics class and did right by those students whose blood was splashed on the walls and floors.

“I will be able to say I’ve done what I could to the best of my abilities,” Galvano said on Wednesday.

Book will remain in the Senate, she and Galvano having proven that even in these divided times, something can be achieved. She offered a variation on “How a bill becomes law.”

“How to set all this stuff aside,” she said.

She proved that a Democrat can speak with sincere admiration for a Republican leader.

“I am very proud of my president,” Book said, an aide quickly clarifying that she was speaking of the one in the Florida Senate, not the one in the White House.

Book also said something we all need to hear as we come up on the second anniversary of the day when Valentine’s Day cards were left strewn on the bloody floor of a bullet-riddled high school.

“There is hope,” said the senator from Parkland.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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