Scott and Legislature seek gun safety changes as criticism grows

Scott urges $500 million safety proposal; Legislature wants three-day waiting period. They have two weeks to act.
Gov. Rick Scott explained his gun safety proposals Friday in Tallahassee [The Florida Channel]
Gov. Rick Scott explained his gun safety proposals Friday in Tallahassee [The Florida Channel]
Published Feb. 23, 2018|Updated Feb. 24, 2018

Gov. Rick Scott and Florida's Republican Legislature laid out a $500 million school safety package Friday that includes major changes to gun laws but falls far short of what survivors of the Parkland massacre and Democrats are demanding.

The Feb. 14 slaughter of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School galvanized supporters of gun control and forced elected leaders to take action in the final two weeks of a legislative session fraught with election-year implications.

Both Scott and lawmakers said they were so committed to the reforms that they are willing to forgo the more than $180 million in tax cuts they had previously called for this year.

"Change is coming…and it will come fast," Scott told a packed news conference in Tallahassee, two days after thousands of people swarmed the Capitol to demand new restrictions on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. "This is a time when I believe we must all come together, and even cross party lines. Of course, we won't all agree on every issue, but I do believe this is a moment when our state can come together around a common sense set of actions."

In the most significant change on gun laws, state leaders agree that anyone who wants to buy a gun must be at least 21. Under current law, only handgun buyers must be 21. Beyond that, top Republicans disagree.

• The Legislature wants a three-day wait for gun purchases, but Scott does not.

• The Legislature wants to allow trained teachers to carry guns; Scott does not.

• Scott wants police or relatives to be able to take away a mentally unstable person's guns without having to forcibly commit them. The Legislature does not.

After seeking advice from sheriffs, educators and mental health experts, and attending the funerals of several of the Parkland victims, Scott is demanding more forceful state action than he did after the Pulse nightclub massacre that took 49 lives two years ago.

In somber tones, Scott opened the morning news conference by reciting the names of all 17 victims in alphabetical order. "Alaina Petty. Meadow Pollack … " he said slowly.

He unveiled a plan to spend $500 million for safer schools and add mental health counseling in response to the killing by a 19-year-old former student who had repeatedly made threats of extreme violence.

"No one with mental issues should have access to a gun," Scott said. "It's common sense."

Schools would be required to have at least one law enforcement official, or one per 1,000 students.

Under Scott's proposal, judges can prevent a violent or mentally ill person from buying or owning a gun based on a sworn petition by a police officer, health expert or family member.

In addition, anyone involuntarily committed under the Baker Act must surrender all firearms for at least 60 days.

Scott said a federal background checks are unreliable, and he reiterated his criticism of the FBI for its "complete failure" in following up on a tip about the Parkland killer.

"It's obvious we can't trust the federal process which is why we have to make these changes here in Florida," Scott said.

Under the Legislature's plan, gun owners would first have to be committed under the Baker Act before police could seize their guns, and they would have to be adjudicated mentally ill by a judge before permanently losing their weapons.

"Whenever you are going to deprive someone of something, you have to do it under a condition that provides clear evidence that that is necessary," said Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.

Under Scott's proposal, police could ask a judge for permission to seize weapons without the use of the Baker Act — a plan sought by Broward Sheriff Scott Israel.

Scott's plan also requires school resource officers in every Florida public and charter school, including one for every 1,000 students; a Department of Children and Families (DCF) case manager assigned to the top law enforcement official in all 67 counties; active shooter drills in every school; and state-approved school safety plans.

Democrats, who are outnumbered 99 to 56 in the Legislature, criticized the plans by Scott and lawmakers as too little, too late. They renewed calls for background checks on gun buyers and an outright ban on the sale and possession of assault weapons, both of which Scott opposes.

"There is support for an assault weapons ban," said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando. "That's what the students want, that's what the teachers want, that's what the survivors of Parkland and Pulse and every other shooting we've had in our state want."

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who's likely to be challenged by Scott this fall, accused the governor of capitulating to the gun lobby.

"The governor's plan doesn't do one thing to ensure comprehensive criminal background checks or ban assault rifles like the AR-15," Nelson said. "His leadership is weak and by recommending raising the age to 21, he is doing the bare minimum."

Scott reiterated his opposition to a ban on weapons such as the AR-15-like assault rifle used in the Parkland attack on Feb. 14.

"I know there are some who are advocating a mass taking of Second Amendment rights for all Americans. That is not the answer," Scott said.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, suggested that an assault weapons ban would violate the Constitution.

"I think there's a delicate balance. Even in difficult times, we have to follow the Constitution. We have to show fidelity to the Constitution," Negron said at a separate news conference with nearly a dozen Republican lawmakers.

The Senate and House plans are similar to those sketched out on a yellow legal pad last weekend by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, before several busloads of Parkland students arrived in Tallahassee Wednesday.

After visiting the school, Galvano said he and Senate leaders decided that addressing gaps in gun and school safety laws was the top priority.

The Legislature's plan falls short of what Floridians want, according to an internal poll for Senate Republicans that shows a majority of residents support an assault weapons ban.

In a major departure from Scott's plan, Republican legislative leaders said they want a three-day wait for all gun purchases in the state.

It would be the first waiting period in more than three decades, and it quickly provoked opposition from the state's sizeable and vocal population of gun owners.

"It's gratuitous gun control," said Marion Hammer, the venerable Florida NRA lobbyist. "We oppose punishing law-abiding gun owners."

"This," Hammer said of the proposed changes, "punishes law-abiding gun owners for the acts of a criminal, and the failure of the FBI, DCF and the school resource officer who wouldn't do his job."

Hammer said raising the age to buy a high-powered rifle from 18 to 21 is meaningless. She said the Parkland killer, Nikolas Cruz, could have bought one from a friend or on a street corner.

"In any major city, you can buy a gun in less than 30 minutes, illegally," Hammer said.

Another difference that must be resolved at the Capitol is that legislators have endorsed a controversial program to train and arm teachers in the classroom, and Scott opposes it.

Lawmakers want to equip teachers with guns through a voluntary "marshal" program that requires teachers to be sworn officers by their county sheriff, after a minimum of 132 hours of training, similar to the initiative underway in Polk County.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, gave assurances that even under a very tight timetable, the proposals will be debated at length during committee meetings and the public will be heard.

The changes must be approved in the next two weeks of the annual legislative session that's scheduled to end on March 9.

"An open dialogue is critical," Scott said. "But I will not accept the old tired political notion that we don't have enough time to get anything done."

The nation is watching Florida closely, and so is the NRA's legal team.

"My lawyers are waiting to look over everything they are doing," Hammer said.