Florida senators to vote today on gun measures. Will it include assault weapons ban?

The Senate Rules Committee votes on an amendment to SPB 7022 by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami that bans semi-automatic firearms, including AR-15s, sold in Florida.
[CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times]
[CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Feb. 26, 2018|Updated Feb. 26, 2018

A powerful Florida Senate committee is expected to approve a package of bills Monday that are bitterly opposed by the National Rifle Association.

That is news.

It's the first time in more than a decade that legislation opposed by the politically powerful interest group will have advanced in Florida's Republican-led Legislature. So is this the tipping point of the gun debate that has been dominated for the last decade by the gun-rights lobby?

PRIOR COVERAGE: Scott and Legislature seek gun safety changes as criticism grows.

Florida House rejects considering ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. 

How they voted: Roll call on assault weapons ban.

Times/Herald survey: Florida Legislature still divided on assault weapons ban. But compromise could be possible.

The answer to that will come when the Senate Rules Committee votes on an amendment to SPB 7022 on Monday by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. He proposes a sweeping ban on semi-automatic firearms, including AR-15s, sold in Florida.

If Rodriguez's amendment is rejected, the gun lobby will take credit, as it has for every attempt to block gun control in Florida for years.

The bills before the Senate Rules Committee Monday — SPB 7022, 7024 and 7026 — will raise the legal age for purchasing any firearm in Florida, impose a three-day waiting period for most gun purchases, increase school safety measures and include the words "seize and hold firearms" from persons deemed to be dangerous to themselves and others. A similar package will be taken up by the House Rules Committee on Tuesday.

They are the cumulative response by Republican leaders in the state House and Senate to the fact that troubled teenager Nikolas Cruz was able to legally obtain an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, walk onto the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and, in six minutes, kill 17 students and teachers and leave 15 with horrible wounds. But the proposals fall far short of where Parkland students and gun control activists want Florida to go.

"The steps that we're taking in the legislation in the Senate and the House for years have been non-starters in a Republican-controlled legislature with a Republican governor and these are significant, big steps to recognize there have been gaps in the way we regulate gun ownership," Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton told the Herald/Times Friday.

The NRA has become a domineering force in Florida politics because of its ability to motivate single-issue voters to reward Republicans who support its agenda and punish those who don't. But there is another reason that legislators are reluctant to impose limits on gun access in Florida that is of their own making: the absence of competition in a majority of the Florida legislative districts.

"What we're seeing is not as much about the NRA having a powerful grip on the Legislature as much as it is about [Republicans] being responsive to their hard core primary voters," said Steve Schale, a Democratic political consultant. "That's just the reality right now. There are very few people who come from swing districts."

Schale estimates that 10 of the 120 districts in the House of Representatives are competitive in a general election, but the remainder are won in a primary, where the gun lobby can mobilize engaged voters. In the state Senate, about 5 of the 40 Senate districts could swing either way.

That sets up a political gamble for Republicans in the Senate, where there are 23 Republicans and 15 Democrats with two open seats that each favor one party.

The calculus Senate Republicans must make to retain their majority is to decide whether to anger the most active members of their conservative base who oppose gun restrictions, or to counter the popular support for an assault weapons ban?

Polling reveals a gap

An internal poll conducted last week by a political committee for Senate Republicans found that two-thirds of all Florida voters, including a majority of gun owners, support an assault weapons ban. But the package introduced by House and Senate leaders last week, and a similar proposal advanced by Gov. Rick Scott, won't include the ban, despite the appeals by the Parkland students in rallies in Tallahassee last week.

Galvano conceived of the package of proposals after visiting the Parkland high school and then commissioned the poll. He acknowledged the package doesn't include the assault weapons ban or limits on high-capacity magazines, two additional measures the poll showed the public would support.

"When I looked at this tragedy, we looked at all the difficult components and decided the place to start is that semi-automatic weapons are every bit as dangerous in the hands of the wrong person," Galvano said.

The head of the NRA's Florida chapter, Marion Hammer, has roundly criticized the legislative plan but won't say if she will urge her members to retaliate against lawmakers in November. "The NRA is absolutely opposed to the gun control language reported to be in the House & already in the Senate bill," Hammer said in a blast message to members this weekend.

Galvano and other Republicans leaders say that NRA opposition is proof they are not following the wishes of the powerful lobby.

Dan Gelber, Miami Beach mayor who battled the NRA for eight years as a state legislator, said that redistricting, which left many Senate seats more competitive in a general election than in the past, is playing a role in weakening the influence of the gun lobby.

"Senators have bigger districts and represent more people and people who have broader cross sections of voters now may see that their future is on the line if they support the gun lobby," he said.

The #NeverAgain movement could make an assault weapons ban a litmus test for candidates in November, the way it has been for Second Amendment advocates in the past, he said. Meanwhile, Republicans who support stricter gun laws must worry about facing a primary challenge from the right — and Democrats who don't support the assault weapons ban may face a primary challenge from the left.

"Moving the age from 18 to 21 is a very tiny step, but there has not been a small tiny step in 20 years," Gelber said.

Bucking the NRA

Lawmakers in the Florida swing districts have already shown the NRA holds little power over them, but they remain in the minority.

"I would vote for an assault weapons ban, but the reality is my vote will not make the difference," said Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, who predicted the measure would not be supported in the House or by the governor.

He was the only Republican lawmaker to attend the massive rally last week on the steps of the Old Capitol by gun control supporters demanding a ban on assault weapons, and he is among a small number of Republicans who come from swing districts where support for assault weapons bans is strong.

"I went to that rally to show solidarity with my community and my state," he said. "It was an important message to send because we have to work together and we cannot take an all-or-nothing attitude about this problem. That is what our democracy is all about."

Sen. Anitere Flories, R-Miami, also wants to see an assault weapons ban, but she said she hopes legislators will start by discussing a ban on AR-15s, which were used in the massacres at both Douglas High and Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Flores, who has a history of blocking pro-gun bills, added that he even if the Senate were to pass such a ban, the House and governor would likely reject it.

"At what point do we have the discussion of is it better to pass something rather than nothing?" she asked.