ST. PETERSBURG — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is gearing up for what could be the race of his life, and on Friday took questions town-hall style from local leaders about education, infrastructure and welfare.

But he spent the most time talking about guns, a perennially controversial campaign topic supercharged by the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland.

He told the crowd of roughly 75 at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority headquarters not to hold their breath waiting for Washington to pass tough gun reform.

“Not much more is going to be done because the votes are not there to address the issue of massacres,” he said.

The senator also tried to draw a distinction between himself and his likely opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to soon announce that he will challenge Nelson in this year's race.

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Last month, Scott signed a guns and school safety package that has garnered him some praise among those who support gun control for bucking the powerful pro-gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.

But Nelson characterized the bill, which implements some gun control measures but also allows schools to arm teachers and staff, as a gift for the NRA.

“They wanted to sell more guns by arming teachers,” Nelson told reporters after the meeting.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson speaks at a twn hall meeting held Friday at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority headquarters in St. Petersburg. [JOSH SOLOMON | Times]
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson speaks at a town hall meeting held Friday at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority headquarters in St. Petersburg. [JOSH SOLOMON | Times]
Nelson told the crowd he has a deep connection to guns, having grown up hunting. But the weapons he uses to hunt — “a .270 (rifle) with a scope or a 12-gauge or 20-gauge shotgun” — are not like the high-powered semiautomatic rifles frequently used by mass shooters. He said it’s important for lawmakers get those weapons, and high-capacity magazines that allow shooters to fire lots of rounds without reloading, off the streets.

He also told the crowd about what has become a common talking point among those who support gun reform: the difference in the kinds of injuries surgeons see in people who have been shot by a handgun vs. the wounds inflicted by semiautomatic rifles such as the AR-15, which was used at Parkland and in the 2017 Las Vegas attack.

“They can save that person’s life” if they’re struck by a handgun-caliber round, Nelson said.

But if they’re struck by a semiautomatic rifle round: They can’t save the life of somebody that is hit with an assault rifle.” That’s because the bullet moves so fast the exit wound could be the size of an orange.

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Nelson avoided discussing Florida's new gun control measures, instead focusing on the provision that allows school personnel to carry guns on campus.

“The teachers don’t want to be armed,” Nelson told a crowd that included at least one member of the Pinellas County school board.
“And I’ll tell you who else doesn’t want them to be armed: It’s the SWAT teams that have to storm the building to find the shooter. They don’t want to encounter a teacher with a gun while trying to find a shooter.”

The bill Scott signed also raises the minimum age to own a firearm from 18 to 21 and creates a waiting period of three days before purchasing a weapon, provisions opposed by the NRA. It also bans bump stock devices that transforms semiautomatic rifles into near full-auto weapons, which was used by the Las Vegas shooter.

The senator lamented how difficult it is to have reasonable discussions about gun reform because some are prone to knee-jerk reactions.

“People have been scared into thinking if you say you can’t purchase an assault rifle … then they are led to believe we’re going to take away all their guns,” he said. “I’ve got more confidence in America than that because of the 2nd Amendment.”

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Nelson said if he does face Scott in November, the gun issue will be one of many differences between the two candidates. But he said who he faces won't impact how he runs his race.

Said Nelson: “Whoever my opponent is, I always take them very seriously and I run like there’s no tomorrow.”

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.