Age limits and waiting periods for assault weapons? Florida legislators are considering it

“We owe it to victims of families on what I now consider the absolute most important issue of the session,” said Sen. Bill Galvano.
Sen. Bill Galvano SCOTT KEELER | Times
Sen. Bill Galvano SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published Feb. 19, 2018|Updated Feb. 20, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — After visits to Parkland left them horrified at the ease with which a gunman could kill 17 people in six minutes, Florida legislators in both the House and Senate are doing something they have resisted for years: drafting legislation to limit access to semi-automatic rifles.

"We owe it to victims of families on what I now consider the absolute most important issue of the session," said Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who will become the next Senate president and who has taken the lead in putting together a wide-ranging Senate proposal.

But while the measures are moving quickly in the aftermath of the shooting, they also fall far short of the assault weapons ban called for by the grieving students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The plan would raise the legal age of possession of an assault rifle to 21 and add a three-day waiting period for all rifle purchases. It has the support of Republican leader Wilton Simpson of Trilby, and top Senate leaders, Galvano said, but it has not been endorsed by the full Senate.

Galvano's six-point approach also focuses on gun background checks, expands school safety and mental health counseling and provides money to help the Broward County school district replace Building 12, where the killings happened. With three weeks left of the legislative session, the proposals will be added to legislation that has already been filed, and included in the budget as line items and directives to state agencies, he said.

Similar legislation to raise the minimum age for possession of an assault rifle and an expansion of the waiting period is being considered by the House, sources told the Times/Herald, but that legislation is still being developed.

Nikolas Cruz, the shooter, is 19 and has a history of mental health issues.

Read More: Legislators say they want to change gun laws. Here are two things they can do.

"I think the House plan will look very similar to the Senate's,'' said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, who graduated from Douglas High. "Everybody is talking on the same wavelength, including the governor."
Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi would not respond to requests for comment about the proposals.

Although this would be the first limit on gun access to be considered by the Republican-led Legislature in more than a decade, the proposals don't go as far as the students from Douglas High would like with their #NeverAgain movement.

In the aftermath of the shooting, students have started a social movement to push for change nationwide and they are demanding that state and federal governments ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

As the first official event of their movement, 100 students from Douglas High will be traveling to Tallahassee Tuesday and Wednesday to meet with legislators and demand change.

But Galvano said the willingness of pro-gun legislators to take up the gun measures shows that the tragedy has influenced them. But he also said that passing a ban on the military-style weapons was politically impractical.

"You have a history in the state of trying to be very balanced in the approach of the Second Amendment," he said. "There are also political realities that we have to consider. I think taking these steps are what we need to be doing now."

It is also not clear whether raising the age will have a significant effect on preventing mass shootings. According to research by the Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries and USA Today, of the 14 deadliest mass shootings in the last 35 years in the U.S., 11 of them involved shooters over the age of 21.

Nearly all of Galvano's ideas are open for consideration by the Florida gun lobby, which has been a powerful force in Tallahassee, often using the right to bear arms as a wedge issue against candidates in many Republican primaries.

Florida Carry, a gun-rights group, was waiting to see the language in the bill before giving an opinion on the proposals, said Eric Friday, general counsel for the group. He said that anything that "restricts law-abiding gun owners," like raising the age of ownership of a rifle, is a "non-starter."

His organization instead has called for emergency legislation allowing classroom teachers to be armed.

"If we're going to have a discussion about what would have prevented this situation, we need to look objectively at all of the failures that occurred before we look at placing more restrictions on law-abiding citizens," he said.

But the National Rifle Association, which has been one of the most powerful forces in Tallahassee, often using the right to bear arms as a wedge issue against candidates in many Republican primaries, said Tuesday it has not taken a position.

"We cannot take a position on a piece of legislation that we have not seen,'' said Marion Hammer, the NRA's Florida lobbyist. "We have not seen a draft. We have not been told officially and, until we know, we cannot take a position."

Here is a summary of Galvano's proposal:

▪ Gun control: Raise the age for the purchase of assault rifles to 21 in Florida and exempt law enforcement and veterans, and ban bump stocks (an attachment that allows a semiautomatic rifle to fire faster). Galvano said this will include a "discussion" about a three-day waiting period, now in place for concealed weapons permits, to apply to all gun purchases. Also, the proposal would revise the state's background screening program for gun purchases to close loopholes, especially as it relates to those with mental illness.

▪ Guarding schools: The current state budget covers enough money for 1,500 school resource officers, who are responsible for school safety and security, at 4,000 schools. On many school campuses one resource officer is not enough. Galvano said the goal is to identify the need at every school and "fill the gaps" with additional funding.

Galvano also wants to adopt a program initiated by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd that allows members of a school's staff to get 132 hours of training and a psychological evaluation to become deputized as law enforcement officials. The "sentinel" program is intended to allow them to carry concealed weapons on campus to respond to an active shooter.

The plan also includes more training for students, faculty and administrators about what to do when an active shooter is present. Galvano said the program will be expanded to include pre-kindergarten.

Finally, Galvano wants to develop a hotline managed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that would be available for students, teachers, parents, caregivers and others to report any suspicious behavior observed on social media or in person. "We need an outlet for people to go when you see something, say something and we need these leads to be followed up," he said.

▪ Hardening school structures: After the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, the state hired a company, Haystax, to do school safety audits of each district, but Galvano said there has not been sufficient follow-up to see whether the recommendations of those audits have been adopted. He wants an update on where school safety funds are being used and whether they are being used for their intended purposes, then identify the funds needed to fill the gaps.

▪ Mental health: The budget would include $100 million to provide funding for training, screening and counseling in schools across the state, and give the Department of Health the ability to do some assessments, Galvano said.

At the recommendation of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, Galvano said he also wants to give law enforcement more tools to take dangerous, mentally ill people into custody by revising the state's Baker Act.

Under current law, a person can be taken into custody for a mental health evaluation for up to 72 hours if an officer sees evidence the person is a danger to himself or herself or others. The proposed change would allow law enforcement to confiscate guns until the person is deemed to no longer be a threat. Law enforcement could take a person into custody for evaluation based on dangerous and threatening texts and messages, violent ramblings and threatening poses with weapons.

Galvano also proposes a gun violence restraining order that would allow people with standing, such as a family member, relative or custodian, to ask a judge to restrain the person's firearm if they believe the person poses a threat. The idea is similar to HB 231 and SB 530, proposed by Democratic Rep. Lori Berman of West Palm Beach and Democratic Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, which were filed but never got a hearing in committees controlled by Republicans.

▪ Public records: Based on concerns from the families of victims at Douglas High, lawmakers also want to exempt the addresses of victims from public records.

▪ Replace Building 12: The state would work with the school district to provide the money to tear down the building where the shootings occurred and replace it with a memorial. Classroom space would be built elsewhere on the campus.