By Perry E. Thurston, Jr.
Who remembers Ken Starr, the independent counsel and his dogged pursuit of the Whitewater affair, a land deal in Arkansas during the time President Bill Clinton had been governor?
For four years, Starr, a Republican, careened through several politically motivated investigations against the Democratic president until 1998 when he discovered allegations that the president was having an affair with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. The five-year probe resulted in a controversial impeachment vote and a quick end of the independent counsel law, a post-Watergate reform that many felt Starr abused in his role as he went after Clinton.
There is a Ken Starr taint emanating from what should be a worthwhile initiative to curtail gun violence. Instead, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which so far has avoided any serious consideration of gun control and gun safety measures, while railing against educators like Broward County School Superintendent Robert Runcie and his efforts to keep minority students from being immediately arrested for petty crimes at school.
The makeup of the commission is disconcerting, too. Law enforcement comprises half of the 20-member commission, with only token representation from educators, mental health experts and locals from the Parkland community itself. There is also an appalling lack of racial diversity on the commission, despite the fact that minority students are a majority in Florida’s public schools.
The Florida Legislature created the “Parkland Commission,” in 2018 as a very public response to what can only be described as a senseless act of horror. On Valentine’s Day, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz entered his former high school and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle killing 17 people and injuring 17 others — the deadliest high school shooting in our country’s history.
The commission is supposed to analyze information from the MSD shooting and other incidents of mass violence in Florida and come up with a series of recommendations and so-called “system improvements.” To date, the panel has published a detailed report recounting the shooting, called for arming teachers and recommended scrapping the Promise Program, a reform that allows students who commit certain misdemeanors to complete a diversion program at an alternative school instead of being arrested. The last two recommendations are both non-starters in my book.
The school shooting itself re-ignited calls for gun control and gun safety laws, initiatives backed by several MSD student leaders and parents. The state responded by approving a law that raised the minimum age for buying rifles, established waiting periods and background checks for gun buyers, banned bump stocks, barred persons adjudicated as mentally defective from possessing firearms and created the Parkland Commission to run for five years.
I voted against the 2018 legislation because I thought then, and continue to believe now, that the bill before the Florida Senate didn’t go far enough to address a major cause of school shootings – the easy access to guns, particularly in banning assault weapons, like the AR-15 used in the Parkland shooting. I voted against SB 7030, the 2019 bill implementing the Legislature’s recommendations for the Parkland Commission for the same reason. The legislation ignored gun safety and under the guise of security only specified ways to bring more guns into our schools.
Now is not the time to pull a Ken Starr in seeking scapegoats in lieu of finding solutions. The Parkland Commission can move forward by seriously evaluating the high cost of securing schools, the right mix mental health services for students and the easy availability of getting a gun, a problem that has yet to be addressed. Fortunately, there’s time, but the clock is ticking.
Perry E. Thurston, Jr. is a Democrat who represents Broward County in the Florida Senate.