Saturday, December 16, 2017
Politics

Hillsborough advocate for better gun laws hits that wall again

It was a senseless dispute at a college graduation party, one of those moments gone horribly wrong because someone brought a gun.

"Somebody pushed somebody else," Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller told me this week. "And somebody took out a gun and started shooting. And shot five people."

And so Miller, who was a state legislator when it happened back in 1997, found himself standing in a Tallahassee hospital hearing a doctor say the words "50-50." Those were the odds that his son Les Miller III, Trey as he was called, would survive being shot.

Today, in the wake of gun tragedies that keep happening, Washington leaders are struggling to hammer out reasonable changes, as in a sensible proposal to expand background checks to more buyers to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll showed most Americans (and more than half of gun owners) believe we can make new gun laws without interfering with gun rights.

Still, politicians keep hitting that formidable wall that is the National Rifle Association and its ilk.

It's a wall Miller knows well.

At the graduation party in Tallahassee, young men from the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity from Florida A&M University were celebrating at the Sparta Club & Grill. The owner of the place would later tell a reporter it was a nice group of kids, no alcohol, no drugs.

Trey was at the door when there was a dispute over a $3 cover charge that two young men from Georgia apparently didn't want to pay. One of the Georgia men started shooting. Trey took a bullet just below his heart.

One young man was paralyzed, another was shot in the head. The gunman would go to prison for life on attempted murder charges. All for what?

Miller had long been concerned about the easy availability of guns. Now it was personal, and he wiped away tears as he spoke to reporters about the need for change. But his legislative attempts all hit that wall. The NRA blasted him, he said. Someone told him he was not an American. "I served in the Air Force," he said. "How am I not an American?"

Recently, when the County Commission on which he now sits took up strategies for dealing with violence, Miller asked to look into whether they could create a county ban on assault rifles and large-capacity magazines. (The answer came back: No.) With that came the angry emails, one of which actually said that if he had he spent more time with his son back then, Trey would not have gotten shot.

Like the voices in Washington, Miller keeps saying this is not about some government plan to take guns from law-abiding citizens, but about keeping them out of the hands of felons or the mentally ill. How could anyone be against a measure to try to stop the next tragedy, and the next?

Trey recovered. He was a criminal justice major who wanted to be a cop. But given all that had happened to him, his father wondered if he could even make it through the physical course to get into the police academy. His son called to say he came in second place, after a Marine.

He is a Tampa police detective today, 38 and married with sons of his own.

And his father is still one of those politicians who wants change, who wants to keep something this senseless from happening to another family, only to hit that wall again.

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