Florida lawmakers face political pressure after Parkland shooting
Joe Raedle/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — A number of Florida politicians are facing public pressure to act after 17 students were killed during a deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last week — blowback that advocates hope could bring about some type of reform in the gun-friendly state.
What that reform would look like and whether it would have an effect on the 2018 midterm election remains to be seen.
On Tuesday, Florida House Republicans rejected a procedural move that would have allowed debate of a Democratic bill that would have banned military-style, semi-automatic rifles and high capacity magazines in the state. State lawmakers made the move under the watchful gaze of students who survived the Feb. 14 massacre and who were watching from the gallery breaking down in tears as the vote came down.
“There are a lot of people who own guns and believe in the right to own guns in Florida,” Beth Rosenson, a political science professor, at the University of Florida told ABC News. She described a culture in a state where “many people own a gun, many people hunt.”
But there is an expectation that the state legislature will do something to respond to the public pressure, she said.
“The legislature will respond in some way so Members can say they’ll do something,” she said. “They’re not that stupid. They realize they have to do something. They can’t do nothing.”
One option would be for state lawmakers to raise the legal age to buy a gun to 21. But it’s unlikely lawmakers would go as far as to ban assault weapons as some advocates have proposed, political science experts say.
Two statewide races could be affected by what happens in Tallahassee over the next few weeks.
In the state’s gubernatorial race, some candidates appear to be treading carefully in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.
On Thursday, less than 24 hours after the shooting, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican running for governor, postponed a hearing on a bill that would have allowed his department to make conceal carry permitting easier for applicants. Although, the original legislation focused mostly on oyster harvesting, on page 87 of the 98-page bill was a provision that would have allowed the department to automatically approve conceal carry permit applications if not approved within 90 days.
Putnam, in July, tweeted he was a “proud NRA sellout” in response to an opinion piece from a Florida columnist with the headline “Adam Putnam sells out to the NRA.”
A notable no vote in Tuesday’s House session to not hear a bill on banning assault rifles was Republican Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is expected to announce he is running for governor when the state legislature session ends.
On the Democratic side, two days after the shooting former Congresswoman and Democratic candidate for governor Gwen Graham called for outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Scott to immediately suspend permitting and sales of AR-15s and all assault weapons.
All three of Graham’s Democratic opponents followed suit calling for a ban on assault rifles.
One of her rivals, former Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine, released a television ad about the issue, marking one of the first times Democrats have made gun control a central issue in a Florida election.
The issue could be a particularly thorny one for Scott to negotiate.
He is term-limited out of the governor’s mansion and is said to be considering a challenge to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. Scott told reporters Tuesday afternoon – after he held a 90-minute roundtable with law enforcement, education and mental health leaders — that “everything is on the table” when it comes to proposals on new gun restrictions.
Over the last seven years in office, Scott has signed a number of laws that have eased gun restrictions across Florida, according to the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action.
Scott’s office highlights his signing of legislation to prioritize adding school resource officers and legislation that added millions to counterterrorism and intelligence efforts. He also has proposed increasing the Safe Schools fund by an extra $14 million in 2015-2016 and an additional $10 million every subsequent year, according to John Tupps, Scott’s communications director.
Sen. Marco Rubio has also faced criticism in the wake of the deadly shooting at a high school in his home state. An activist group, Avaaz, posted a trio of mobile billboards in Miami last week asking why there’s no congressional movement on gun control, according to the Miami Herald.
“How come, Marco Rubio?” one of the billboards read.
Rubio office did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
Nelson’s office pointed out that he is a cosponsor of legislation in the Senate to ban the sale of assault weapons.
Both lawmakers traveled to the region after last week’s shooting.
“Rubio’s in a position where he doesn’t have to worry about re-election for a few years so it’s less important what he thinks and says, at least politically speaking, as compared to Nelson who’s going to be on the ballot in November and who’s going to be presumably facing the current Gov. Rick Scott,” said Michael Binder, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Florida.
There will also be national players involved in the Florida races.
During the 2016 election cycle, the NRA spent $54 million in the presidential and congressional races, nearly $20 million of which went to attacking Hillary Clinton while more than $11 million was spent in Donald Trump’s favor.
Adding her voice to the fight is former congresswoman and mass shooting survivor Gabby Giffords, who called out Scott over what she sees as his inaction on gun violence and ties to the NRA by rolling out a “six-figure ad buy” to air a TV commercial targeting the governor.
Meanwhile, as the lawmakers mull their positions in some cases and level criticism at the other side in others, the survivors of gun violence are determined to make themselves heard.
Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School swarmed the state Capitol building this week to demand tougher gun laws. They are scheduled to have been 40 and 60 meetings on Wednesday, including with state Attorney General Pam Bondi, Senate President Joe Negron and with Corcoran, the state house speaker.
Time is not on their side to see legislation get passed and end up on Scott’s desk. The state legislature ends its session on March 9, which gives lawmakers two and a half weeks to pass something. And there is no carry-over of legislation to the next session.
Then there are concerns from lawmakers about the electoral consequences of their actions.
Most voters don’t vote on a gun control as a single issue, political experts say.
And, in other states, lawmakers have seen fallout from voting for stricter gun control laws. In Colorado, two Democratic state senators lost in a 2013 special election after providing crucial support for a package of state gun laws in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting.
It was an election the NRA was heavily involved in.
The political push for gun policy reform in Florida could also play out in races across the country as students join their Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School brethren. Several hundred students from Washington D.C. area schools walked out of their schools on Wednesday afternoon and converged on Capitol Hill to protest the lack of action on gun reform.
They held signs and chanted and, like the Parkland survivors, eloquently spoke about the need for more gun safety laws as they marched down the National Mall toward the White House.
Other students, including some from Parkland, Fla., are at the White House this afternoon to meet with Trump, Vice President Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
“This afternoon the President will host a conversation on how to improve school safety. He will hear from students, parents and educators who have directly experienced these horrific tragedies. In attendance will be students from Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School; representatives from Sandy Hook Promise and Rachel’s Challenge; local students, parents, and teachers,” according to a White House statement.
Meanwhile, George Clooney and other celebrities said they will attend the March 24 “March for Our Lives” in Washington D.C. in honor of the Florida victims which could bring more attention to the issue.
Experts question whether the attention will be enough to hasten reform and whether the public pressure will have impact on election day?
“Could this be the event that galvanizes people? Maybe. Looking back on history there’s a very steep mountain that has to be climbed here by proponents for gun control,” Michael McDonald, a political science professor and an expert in voting at the University of Florida, told ABC News.
“It takes something special for an event to be persistent in the public consciousness. And it’s difficult sometimes to know what that event is going to be.”
He noted that “these transformative events are rare and far between” but “if we’re still talking about this in six months we know we’ve gone through a transformative event.”
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