- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2022

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responded to the nation’s latest school shooting with legislation aimed at improving school safety and increasing student mental health monitoring, rejecting stricter gun measures pushed by congressional Democrats and the Biden administration that include 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’s agenda and have helped increase Mr. DeSantis’ popularity beyond Florida.

Mr. DeSantis, 43, is leading opponents by double digits in his bid for a second term as governor, according to the latest statewide poll. He also is considered a top contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He prevailed over former President Donald Trump in a straw poll over the weekend at the Western Conservative Summit in Colorado.

His string of legislative and policy victories, including a booming state economy, has 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. Still, he promotes his agenda and frequently attacks President Biden as though he is running for president, not for a second term as governor.

SEE ALSO: DeSantis beats Trump in Western Conservative Summit straw poll

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, which have raised gasoline prices and inflation. The president’s approval ratings have sunk to alarming lows as a result.

“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 at an event last week 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-19 lockdowns, mask requirements and vaccine mandates. Instead, he opened the state at the height of the pandemic.

He made national headlines again this year when he took on the Walt Disney Co. He stripped its massive and iconic theme park of its special independent tax district status after corporate leaders pledged to help overturn a new state law banning schools from teaching LGBTQ issues to kindergarten to third-grade students.

The initiatives have elicited praise from Republicans. Democrats and other critics said his policies would harm LGBTQ children or lead to more COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Mr. DeSantis’ response to COVID-19 has been largely vindicated, according to data showing that Florida fared as well as, or in some cases better than, other states with stricter measures.

A state inspector general’s report last month rejected widely publicized claims by former state health department analyst Rebekah Jones that Mr. DeSantis rigged COVID-19 data to downplay infections.

Ms. Jones appeared in multiple media stories claiming she was fired for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 positivity rates. She and many in the press accused Mr. DeSantis of seeking to hide the real COVID-19 numbers to justify his rejection of the mandates and lockdowns.

The state inspector general, Michael Bennett, found Ms. Jones’ claims to be “unsubstantiated” and “unfounded.”

In another victory for Mr. DeSantis, the Special Olympics backed down last week from a requirement that participants in the Orlando Games be vaccinated for COVID-19. The governor had threatened the Special Olympics with a $27.5 million fine.

Mr. DeSantis imposed a state ban on vaccine mandates in November to counter Mr. Biden’s federal COVID-19 policy.

Showcasing his school safety initiative on Friday, Mr. DeSantis said the state budget includes $400 million for safety and mental health initiatives in public schools.

He said he plans to soon sign an additional school safety bill that won unanimous passage in the Legislature. The bill would establish a list of requirements aimed at preventing school shootings and responding to them faster and more effectively.

It mandates emergency drills in schools that require the participation of local law enforcement and a 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. In 2018, the state incorporated “red flag” laws to seize guns from people deemed dangerous or unstable, and it raised the age to buy guns from 18 to 21. The Parkland shooting was carried out by a mentally ill teenager.

Mr. DeSantis, meanwhile, has not backed down from his pledge to sign into law a bill that would allow individuals to carry concealed guns without a permit. The plan has attracted significant criticism from Democrats and gun control advocates, particularly in the wake of the recent 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.

Mr. DeSantis outlined his school safety plan last week and noted that the gunman at the recent mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, 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 after the shooting in Parkland when it was determined that 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. Instead, he 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 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.”

• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at sferrechio@washingtontimes.com.

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