TALLAHASSEE — Three months after the Orlando shooting massacre, how best to reform America's gun laws and better thwart suspected terrorists' efforts to buy firearms has become an issue of sharp contrast between the two candidates running in Florida's highly competitive and nationally watched U.S. Senate race.
Gun control reform became a prominent topic this week between Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy and Republican incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio, as each candidate seeks to better define himself — and his opponent — for Florida voters.
Earlier this week, Murphy used his endorsement from the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, an LGBT gun-reform group founded after the Orlando shooting, as an opportunity to strike a contrast with Rubio's defense of gun rights.
Then on Thursday, they clashed after Rubio introduced his own Orlando-inspired gun reform proposal in the Senate.
Rubio, whose campaign has been endorsed and financially supported by the National Rifle Association, touted his plan as one that would protect Americans' Second Amendment rights while also making it harder for people suspected of terrorism — as the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen previously was — to buy firearms.
In a statement through his Senate office, Rubio said his legislation "builds on some of the best ideas that have been proposed and improves them in ways that I hope will make a bipartisan solution more likely."
But the measure drew swift criticism — for both its timing and its content — from Murphy and a couple of influential Democratic allies, who said Rubio's measure was a reflection of "the Washington gun lobby's bidding."
Joining Murphy in attacking Rubio's proposal were Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (no relation) — who famously filibustered on the Senate floor for 15 hours in June over gun reforms proposed after the shooting at Pulse nightclub — and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun violence prevention organization founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly.
Together, they argued Rubio's bill would be more of an impediment than a helpful tool in stopping terrorists from purchasing firearms.
Patrick Murphy, in a campaign statement, said Rubio's introduction of such a bill at this time was "an embarrassment." He called it "callous political opportunism" and a "transparent attempt to paper over relentless opposition to legislation that prevents gun violence."
After the Orlando shooting, Congress failed to agree on several gun-control reforms, including a measure that would keep individuals on the federal "no-fly" list from buying firearms.
Rubio said Thursday he introduced the "Terror Intelligence Improvement Act" in reaction to the Orlando shooting as a fresh proposal that he hoped would garner bipartisan support.
Rubio also called the plan "another step toward fulfilling my promise" to Fred and Maria Wright, whose son, Jerry, was killed along with 48 others.
"The Wrights made a simple request: That we improve our laws so it is more difficult for evil people to get hold of guns," Rubio said. "I told them I would continue working toward consensus on common-sense measures that would help ensure criminals, terrorists and others seeking to take innocent lives are not able to acquire firearms.
"This bill would achieve everyone's goal of making it harder for suspected terrorists to buy guns, and do so without violating the due process and Second Amendment rights of innocent, law-abiding Americans," Rubio added.
Among its provisions, Rubio's proposal allows the U.S. attorney general to delay a firearms' purchase for up to three days and file an emergency court petition if someone previously investigated for terrorism tried to buy a gun.
But Patrick Murphy spokesman Joshua Karp said a proposal in June, which he said Rubio opposed, was a more workable option. Maine Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins' plan would have denied weapons to suspected terrorists "while allowing for a robust appeals process to protect the rights of responsible gun owners," Karp said.
In one of a handful of tweets, Chris Murphy backed up Patrick Murphy's argument, saying Rubio's "bill won't stop one terrorist from getting a gun. This is a rehash of the gun lobby's proposal."
"Where was @marcorubio when we needed him on #NoFlyNoBuy 2 months ago?" Chris Murphy also tweeted. "This bill is just intended to be a footnote in a TV ad."
Chris Murphy followed up his minor tweet storm by also commenting in a lengthy statement issued by Patrick Murphy's Senate campaign. Chris Murphy was an early supporter of the congressman's bid. Americans for Responsible Solutions has also endorsed Patrick Murphy.
Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark