NEW PORT RICHEY — When Pasco County commissioners indefinitely delayed a debate two weeks ago about closing the "gun show loophole," Richard Davis took it personally.
Newtown, Conn., where a gunman opened fired at an elementary school in December, was his home.
"I spent 15 years there," said Davis, who moved seven years ago to Trinity. "I'm concerned for the children. I'm concerned for the parents."
Gun control took center stage Tuesday at the County Commission meeting, a forum where tax rates and traffic issues typically stoke the most passion. At one point, commissioners exchanged heated words over a ceremonial resolution supporting the U.S. Constitution — which some perceived as an attempt to undermine any local ordinances regulating gun show purchases.
Davis was part of a group that support tighter gun rules in Pasco brought up shortly after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. After commissioners heeded their attorney's advice to wait out pending lawsuits elsewhere before deciding whether to require a three-day waiting period and background check at gun shows, the group showed up to voice their displeasure. They wore green, the color adopted by the parents of Sandy Hook who were pushing for stricter gun laws. Several were members of the county's Democratic Executive Committee, which initially requested the new rules.
"You have abdicated your responsibility by not showing leadership on this matter," Maggie Koons, a retired registered nurse, scolded commissioners. "People elect you to make decisions to improve our lives and keep us safe in our communities."
Mike Malefronte, a retired teacher from Connecticut, said his support for background checks does not make him anti-American.
"I definitely support the Constitution and all the amendments in the Bill of Rights," he said. "This is not a constitutional question."
Their pleas did not sway commissioners, who listened politely and then moved on with the agenda.
Earlier in the day, however, commissioners sparred over the intent of a resolution supporting the Constitution, "including the Bill of Rights." The measure, offered in the wake of the gun show loophole debate, failed by a 3-2 vote.
"Now the headlines will be 'three commissioners do not support the Constitution of the United States,'" said an angry Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who joined commissioners Ted Schrader and Kathryn Starkey in opposing the resolution. "I'm an American and very proud of it." She noted that her husband is a gun owner and avid hunter.
"All I wanted to see was a background check," she said.
The resolution was put forward by Commissioner Jack Mariano, a gun-rights advocate who opposed any discussion of tightening gun rules. Commissioner Henry Wilson Jr. joined him in supporting the pro-Constitution resolution that Mariano said was written by a representative of the Tenth Amendment Center, described on its website as a national think tank dedicated to the principles of "strictly limited government."
Commissioners routinely approve such resolutions, which are usually ceremonial and symbolic, not controversial. The resolution offered by Mariano reaffirmed the commission's support of the entire Bill of Rights "including . . . the right to keep and bear arms free of federal infringements." The resolution also opposed any efforts to curtail those rights, noting that "government measures which undermine fundamental civil liberty interests do damage to the institutions of our Republic and the values that the residents of Pasco County hold dear."
Mulieri chastised Mariano from the dais for doing something so divisive when she had only 13 months left in office.
"I'm ashamed of you, Jack. To make a little political hay, you'd do this," she said.
Mariano suggested a resolution supporting the Second Amendment two weeks ago when commissioners were scheduled to consider requiring background checks and a three-day waiting period for firearms purchased at gun shows. State law requires a background check for gun sales at retail shops (as well as a three-day waiting period for handgun sales), but leaves the rules for gun shows up to counties.
After commissioners put off a public hearing, Mariano suggested the resolution supporting the Second Amendment, but other commissioners said only a resolution supporting the entire Constitution would be appropriate.
Mariano returned with a resolution that he said had been written for Collier County and was adapted by the County Attorney's Office.