TAMPA — Just three months ago, Hillsborough County commissioners refused a relatively small-bore proposal to create a gun buyback program in response to the Newtown, Conn. school shootings late last year.
But they voted 6-1 Wednesday to ask their attorney to research whether they could create a county ban on assault rifles and large-capacity magazines and institute universal background checks on gun buyers. Commissioner Mark Sharpe voted against the proposal.
As he did in speaking against a buyback program in January, saying in that case he didn't think it would do any good, Democratic commissioner Les Miller invoked his son's 1997 shooting in seeking information about more intensive gun restrictions. While the January decision suggests the idea ultimately won't go anywhere, his fellow board members voted on the side of letting their colleague get information.
"They may come back to us and say, as a county, we can't do it," Miller said. "I'm just asking them to take a look at it. I didn't say take anyone's arms. I didn't say put them in jail because they have an Uzi."
The vote came after commissioners unanimously approved spending up to $150,000 to launch an anti-violence task force, which was a companion proposal to commissioner Kevin Beckner's gun buyback request in January. The money will go largely toward hiring an Oakland, Calif.-based violence prevention consulting firm to assist the task force, as well as a facilitator to aid the panel's discussions.
The task force, being called the Hillsborough County Community Violence Prevention Collaborative, will have nine members, including Beckner and representatives of the county's three cities. It will also include a School Board member, the Hillsborough circuit court's chief judge and representatives for the sheriff, state attorney and public defender.
That panel will in turn recommend appointees to eight subcommittees focused on subjects relating to public safety and education and health care, including mental health and substance abuse experts.
There also will be a 17-member steering committee consisting of Prevention Collaborative members and representatives of each of the eight subcommittees.
Members will be asked to work with the nonprofit Prevention Institute, affiliated with the Harvard School of Public Health, which has worked on similar projects in 18 other cities.
Some of the money will go to pay Herb Marlowe, a Florida-based facilitator who has helped commissioners with strategic planning discussions.
Ultimately, the group will spend nine months to a year customizing a comprehensive anti-violence initiative that will have measurable outcomes. Beckner said he was pleased that what started as an anti-gun violence discussion has grown into a more comprehensive effort.
"We've really broadened this out to focus on violence in the community," he said.
Indeed, Beckner actually expressed concern about Miller pursuing gun and magazine ban information, fearing the proposal would suggest that his task force has a gun-control agenda, which he said it does not.
"I've always been very supportive of board members getting information," Beckner said. "If we go forward today and all of a sudden jump to talking about gun violence we then start to dilute the focus of what this group is, which is to address violence at a higher level."
He ultimately voted with Miller. Sharpe, who did not, said that before he would look at a ban on any weapon, he would want more information about whether research shows it does anything to prevent violence.
Some commissioners expressed reservations about Beckner's task force. Those such as commissioners Sandy Murman and Al Higginbotham said they were concerned about spending money on the exercise when they've formed other task forces that cost no money.
They said the size of the task force when combined with the subcommittees seems too unwieldy. And they said addressing violence should be the purview of law enforcement, not commissioners.
County Administrator Mike Merrill said he recommended hiring consultants because his staff is already stretched on other major commission initiatives and he doesn't have the in-house expertise. Ultimately, commissioners all gave their blessing.
"If I vote against it, then I'm not supporting crime prevention," Higginbotham said. "And I certainly support crime prevention."
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.