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Bob Gualtieri’s blunt defense of arming school personnel: ‘It’s going to happen again’

He said the question is not if, but where and when.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is defending his support of the Guardian Program that allows teachers, faculty or other school staff to carry guns on campus if they meet a set of rigorous criteria.

The program has been controversial as gun control advocates and other advocacy organizations rally against what they see as a dangerous attempt to arm teachers. Such opponents favor instead implementing stricter gun regulations such as better background checks and banning assault weapons

During an emotional presentation to Pinellas County Commissioners on Tuesday that lasted nearly an hour and a half, Gualtieri made a case for the Guardian Program saying harm mitigation is the best way to address gun violence in schools. 

“There is one thing we know for sure and three questions that follow that,” Gualtieri said. “It is going to happen again.”

The statement was blunt, and its implication hung in the air with cold reality. The questions, Gualtieri said, were when and where the next tragedy would occur. 

“The most important question is the third question — what are we doing differently today to drive a different outcome?” Gualtieri asked.

He didn’t get into the gun control debate, but Gualtieri did deliver a scathing critique of those refusing to accept the idea of highly trained adults arming themselves in school. He pointed to the story of Chris Hixon, the athletic director and wrestling coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Hixon was one of 17 killed in the Valentine’s Day massacre at the Broward County High School last year.

Hixon was a concealed-weapons permit holder and, had he been armed, might have been able to defend himself and students at the school. According to Gualtieri, there were several opportunities while gunman Nicholas Cruz reloaded. 

Gualtieri went on to explain the rigorous training school staff members who want to participate in the Guardian Program must go through — extensive background checks, scenario training and gun skills training that requires higher proficiency than that of law enforcement recruits.

“If you’ve got a Chris Hixon who wants to do all that, why shouldn’t he be able to protect himself,” Gualtieri asked. 

But instead, he said, some people insist that those protecting our state’s schools must be law enforcement officers. 

“The cops do not exist, and we cannot manufacture them,” Gualtieri said, noting the 1,500 open law enforcement positions left unfilled in the state. 

Gualtieri rejected the notion of focusing on prevention, reiterating that the next school shooting is not a question of if, but one of when and where.

“We can worry about the prevention stuff later on,” he said. 

For Pinellas County’s part, Gualtieri said schools are doing well. Unlike Marjory Stoneman Douglas, schools go through active shooter drills for both students and faculty. They learn about where to hide if there’s a gunman on campus. Stay low and out of sight. Hide. Run as a second resort and fight back as a last. 

He also praised the county for taking charge in implementing “red flag” programs that allow law enforcement officers and the courts to remove guns from people who might be a threat to themselves or others. 

None of that was the case in Broward County where several warnings rolled in during the months before Cruz opened fire on students and faculty in Parkland. The school itself didn’t have a single active shooter training for students and only one for faculty — one that lasted just 15 minutes. 

“They were clueless on what to do or how to do it,” Gualtieri explained.

In part, Gualtieri blamed the media for what he described as creating hysteria around the Guardian Program. Thanks to some reports, he said, there’s a stereotype that the state is trying to put a gun in the hands of an elderly librarian and even just have guns sitting out on desks.

“Focus on harm mitigation,” he implored. “You’re not going to prevent it. It’s going to happen again. The core is harm mitigation — things that are going to stop the event as soon as it starts and that’s got to be the goal.

One death or injury, he said, is better than 34 — the number of people, mostly kids, shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. 

Gualtieri said his positions are based on facts rooted in data analysis. Of 46 targeted attacks on schools in the U.S., 43 were committed by people who had a right to be there. Most shootings are committed using handguns, he said. And most incidents are over within four minutes. 

“The majority aren’t stopped by cops,” Gualtieri said. “[They’re] stopped by school personnel.”

There wasn’t any action taken on Gualtieri’s presentation. He closed on a video of officers responding to a classroom where students lay dead on the floor. Bloodied students were carried from the room as peers watched on in horror, crying and screaming.

Silence fell on the Commission board room as the video ended. Tears welled in Commissioners’ eyes. When it came time to ask questions, the gravity was so heavy not one Commissioner asked about the problematic and politically motivated topic of gun control.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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