Romano: He’s willing to risk his career rather than stay silent on guns

Les Miller, center, wipes away a tear during a 1997 new conference after describing the gunshot wound his son Trey suffered. [AP]
Les Miller, center, wipes away a tear during a 1997 new conference after describing the gunshot wound his son Trey suffered. [AP]
Published March 3 2018
Updated March 3 2018

Everyone is talking. Loudly, brashly and with misguided certitude.

The gun debate has elicited opinions from teenagers in South Florida all the way to the Oval Office, and into every dark corner of the Internet.

Yet in Tampa Bay, only one voice has been willing to risk his career to voice his conviction. Such a loud statement from such a soft-spoken man.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller is asking his colleagues to vote next week to ban assault-style weapons in the county.

He offered the proposal after talking with the county administrator, the county attorney and his family. He offered it after being advised he could be removed from office and fined $5,000 under a state law that forbids local gun legislation. He offered it after being told that if fellow commissioners agreed with him, the ban would still carry no weight since it would be superseded by state law.

Even so, he does not believe his gambit is without meaning.

"Maybe if we can start a conversation,’’ Miller said Friday, "we’ll finally see some action.’’

Miller is not the only one with a proposal. City commissioners in Coral Gables have advanced a local ban that could be voted on and enacted next week. Some mayors around the state also are talking about a constitutional amendment that could overrule state statutes.

Meanwhile, state leaders in Tallahassee have spent two weeks bickering in weary and predictable ways. Their willingness to listen is directly proportional to the demographics of their primaries.

Miller understands the dynamics. He was a legislator in the state House and Senate for 14 years. He also understands the local leaders who support his views but are wary of enlisting in the fight.

They do not have the perspective of a father who spent 18 days and nights in a Tallahassee hospital as his son recovered from multiple gunshot wounds.

Trey Miller was at a Florida A&M graduation party at a bar and grill in 1997 when a dispute from an unrelated group of men led to gunfire. Five people were shot. Trey took a bullet just below his heart.

"You can’t imagine how gut-wrenching it is to hear your child has a 50/50 chance of making it through the night," Miller said. "I’ve reflected on the pain and agony of that night, and I’ve thought about the parents who sent their children to school expecting them to be safe. And the people who went to a nightclub in Orlando to have a little fun and were never seen alive again.

"I’m not saying we shouldn’t have the right to bear arms. I’m saying the right to bear arms should not include assault weapons.’’

This is not a new position for Miller. Years before the incident with Trey — who is now a Tampa police officer — Miller introduced legislation in the House to ban assault weapons.

Predictably, it went nowhere.

We’ve been having the same debates for more than 20 years. Do you solve crime and violence with more guns, or fewer? Does a weapon with greater firepower make us safer, or more vulnerable? Should the Second Amendment be all-encompassing, or reasonably tempered?

The problem is there are no absolute answers, only differing shades of acceptable.

Where we lose is when we stop listening. Or, worse, when voices are silenced.

That’s what makes Miller’s stance important. Prodded by the political clout of the NRA, the state Legislature made it illegal for locally elected officials to advocate on this issue.

They became so beholden to the Second Amendment that they, more or less, trampled on the First Amendment.

Polls say more Floridians agree with Miller than disagree. And yet, he is facing fines and removal from office for doing his job as a public servant. No matter where you stand on gun issues, that should give you pause.

"I don’t know how my fellow county commissioners will vote. I don’t know if the governor will come after me,’’ Miller said. "What I do know is that something has to be done.’’