Two mass shootings that left 31 dead and renewed a national call for better attention to the warning signs of homegrown terrorism have revived the debate in Florida’s Capitol over how to curb gun violence.
Stirring the debate is Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who this week sent signals he is prepared to use political capital to pass gun legislation in an election year. He instructed a key committee to “review and better understand the various factors involved in mass shootings” including white nationalism, and he vowed that all options can be considered.
“This is the issue of our time,’’ said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, chair of the committee that will do the review. “You’d like to think this is a fad, but there is growing evidence it’s more embedded in the American psyche than that.”
Democrats who support stricter gun laws say they will use this window to push legislation, such as broadening the so-called red flag law that allows law enforcement to confiscate guns from people who threaten to harm themselves or others, restricting high-capacity magazines, tightening gun-show loopholes and background checks, and even banning some assault weapons.
But with more than 1,100 gun-related homicides in Florida since the Parkland massacre, lawmakers from the state’s inner-city areas want the discussion to go even further.
They want measures aimed at combating gun crimes in black and brown communities where they estimate that in 60 percent of the gun deaths no arrest is ever made.
“The conversation we are having about gun violence is so important, but it is my sincere hope that we as a country will also give a damn about what is happening in communities of color when it comes to gun violence,’’ said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park.
“Yes, we need to ban assault rifles and increase background checks and strengthen the red flag laws, but Republicans cannot say they are interested in talking about gun violence only in an election year, they have to start talking about it in the off years.”
Lee said “the fact that the Senate president has signaled he would like the institution to reconsider these issues sends a powerful message” especially to the more conservative state House.
“As long as we bring something that makes sense and is supported by law enforcement we should be able to do something,’’ he said.
Echoes of Parkland
In 2018 a day after viewing the crime scene at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, made a prediction: “The focus of this Legislature will be on this for many years to come.”
In the following weeks, Galvano and Simpson worked with Democrats to pass the first restrictions on guns in Florida in a generation. That bill increased the age to possess a firearm in Florida from 18 to 21 and banned “bump stock” devices, issues that drew the ire of the powerful National Rifle Association. It also imposed the state’s first “red flag” law and gave schools the ability to arm school personnel.
But their attention to gun violence was short lived. In the 2019 session, legislators added teachers to the school personnel who can be armed but passed no gun restrictions. Now, after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Galvano, Simpson and Lee said they are ready to renew the focus.
“We have had a two-year journey to focus on violence in our schools, but I wanted to be sure we are looking at the broader picture in terms of what are the factors influencing these acts,’’ Galvano said Thursday. “What are the red flags and are there opportunities for us to legislate or allocate resources to prevent these type of acts by virtue of understanding what to look for?”
In many ways, Galvano’s announcement is fulfilling a promise he made to students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas in March 2018, when they crowded into a Senate meeting room one week after the massacre and demanded action.
“We owe it to you to take meaningful action,’‘ Galvano told the students at the time. “To hear what you have to say and not just let it fall but to let it become a change in the way we do business in Florida.”
The 53-year-old Bradenton lawyer is in his last year of elected office after 15 years in the House and Senate, and he clearly sees this as a legacy issue. In February 2018, a day after visiting the blood-stained Marjory Stoneman Douglas campus, he sketched out an outline for passing the first gun laws in Florida in years.
“When I presented the bill on the floor, I told the Senate in the chamber we were just starting the journey,’’ Galvano recalled Thursday. “Passing that bill was no longer the conclusion of the challenge we face in society today. We have to be continually vigilant. What’s working and what’s not working — and we have to make sure what we have done is working effectively.”
Are other state leaders on board?
Democrats, however, are carefully reading statements coming from Florida’s other Republican leaders, who control every branch of government, and who haven’t yet sent public signs that they share the sentiments of the Senate leaders.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday he won’t engage in partisan finger pointing on the issue because he has “no interest in being part of people’s political narratives” and that he was “trying to focus on solutions” such as the state’s “threat assessment strategy.”
On the same day Galvano called for a vigorous review of gun violence in the wake of the weekend shootings, House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, decried “racism, including white nationalism” as “vile [and] disgusting” but he called for no action.
“We must ask ourselves more than ‘what to do,’ we must figure out, as leaders and as a society, ‘who we are,’ “ Oliva said in the statement.
Despite a June Quinnipiac poll that showed 72 percent of Florida voters want the state to do more to address gun violence — and 57 percent support a ban on the sale of assault weapons — the gun-rights lobby and the NRA remain potent influences on GOP primary elections.
The Republican Party of Florida announced Thursday that it is planning to hold two voter registration drives at a Pembroke Pines gun show this weekend.
However, there is evidence that hard-line Republican opposition to a ban on assault weapons is thawing.
A constitutional amendment drive to enact a ban on military-style rifles in Florida has, as its largest contributors, several prominent Republicans including Norman Braman, a billionaire philanthropist and South Florida auto dealer, and an organization called Americans for Gun Safety Now! led by Al Hoffman, a long-time GOP mega-donor and the developer who built Parkland.
The Parkland shootings affected Hoffman so deeply that in 2018 he announced he would not back any candidate, including then-Gov. Rick Scott, who didn’t support a national ban on assault weapons.
In the Senate, Orlando Democrat Linda Stewart is filing a bill she has proposed every year since the shooting at Pulse nightclub killed 49 people in 2016. The bill bans assault weapons and gives those who own them 90 days to sell or forfeit them.
“In Ohio, the shooter had 240 rounds and was able to kill all those people — in nine seconds,’’ she said. “Not even half of our police departments have guns that are that capable.”
This year, Stewart said, her proposal will include a ban only on the AR, AK and Sig Sauer series rifles “because those are the three type of assault weapons which are the weapons of choice for all these mass shootings.”
Sen. Lori Berman of Delray Beach and Rep. Richard Stark of Weston, both Democrats, have proposed legislation that would expand the red flag law to allow mothers, fathers, step parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses or legal guardians to petition the court to remove a firearm from a family member deemed by the court to be a threat.
Current law allows only law enforcement to petition a court to remove firearms and, since it took effect, state law enforcement officials estimate it has been used more than 2,300 times.
The laws also issue “extreme risk protection” orders preventing anyone deemed a danger to himself or others from possessing a firearm.
Last year, a federal proposal by Florida U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson would have paid states to adopt and implement red flag law programs but the bill never got a hearing.
After the Texas and Ohio shootings, a similar bi-partisan proposal for a red flag law is now being pushed in Washington, D.C. by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. and President Donald Trump has signaled support for it. At least 17 states including Florida and the District of Columbia have adopted the laws since the Parkland shootings.
Jones said he will remind Republicans that many teen homicides occur between the hours of 3 and 7 p.m. because “kids have nothing to do. When we took away the after-school programs, things blew up.”
Galvano said the issue “does belong in the debate.”
“We need focused resources to prevent violence and to make sure proper investigation — and ultimately sanctions — are applied when violence occurs,’’ he said.
Democrats, at least in the Florida Senate, are optimistic.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat and former prosecutor, has proposed legislation that will make it illegal for minors to post pictures on social media with a firearm — a move he said will help law enforcement apprehend potential shooters in crime-ridden minority communities.
“In the overwhelming major of minority children that are killed, the person is never arrested,’’ he said. “The cases go cold or there isn’t a sense of urgency or outrage because black and brown is usually shot one or two at a time, not in mass. How serious are we about solving those crimes?”
He said he was encouraged by DeSantis’ comments blaming the “recesses of the Internet” for allowing people to congregate in an online community “and spread a lot of the vile stuff.”
Jones, the West Park Democrat, said he has asked DeSantis to convene a commission to look at gun violence in communities of color and while he was interested he has not followed up.
Galvano notes that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission, which analyzes mass violence incidents in the state, is still meeting and expects to present additional recommendations.
Will it include a recommendation to allow communities to end the NRA-backed law that preempts local governments from imposing stricter gun laws for their communities?
Simpson, the incoming Senate president, said he believes the Senate’s focus will be more about how to get information about people who pose a threat to themselves or others into the database.
“It’s going to be more about how do we restrict people that shouldn’t have them,’’ he said.
He called the current law “a good first step” and the review by the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee will involve “experts who can tell us what more we can do.”
“The willingness of leadership to look at that is a huge, important piece,’’ said Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation and a member of the commission. “We shouldn’t say it’s just because it’s an election year. Let’s just engage. Don’t question the motives behind it.”
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writers Lawrence Mower and Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and @MaryEllenKlas.