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Senate panel moves to raise Florida gun age, rejects ban on semi-automatic rifles

A Plant High School junior and a St. Petersburg pastor were among those encouraging tougher action, as protesters gathered again at the Capitol.
About 1,000 protesters wearing orange T-shirts with the hashtag #gunreformnow rally on the steps of the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee on Monday. The demonstration was led by former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who's a Democratic candidate for Florida governor. (MARK WALLHEISER  |  AP]
About 1,000 protesters wearing orange T-shirts with the hashtag #gunreformnow rally on the steps of the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee on Monday. The demonstration was led by former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who's a Democratic candidate for Florida governor. (MARK WALLHEISER | AP]
Published Feb. 27, 2018
Updated Feb. 27, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — A key Florida Senate committee took the first step Monday to raising the legal age for buying a gun in Florida and building a stronger safety net to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally impaired in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Parkland.

But while the Senate Rules Committee voted 9-4 in favor of SPB 7024, senators also rejected a ban on semi-automatic rifles, the top priority of students and gun activists who arrived in busloads last week and again on Monday.

The proposal is a collaborative response from House and Senate Republican leaders to the deadly shooting in Parkland that killed 17 students and teachers and left 15 injured. Named the "Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act,'' it was written to address "the crisis of gun violence, including but not limited to, gun violence on school campuses,'' the bill said.

The bill was amended to match a proposal to be heard Tuesday in the House. While the vote was the first time a Republican-led Senate committee voted to limit gun rights in Florida in nearly two decades, the committee also voted 7-6 to reject the amendment by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, that would have defined certain semi-automatic rifles and banned their sale and possession in Florida.

"Assault weapons are weapons of war,'' Rodriguez told the committee. "They are designed for the battlefield, modified for civilian use for massive profits for the $17 billion gun industry."

His amendment was modeled after the assault weapons bans that passed in Connecticut after the Sandy Hook massacre, then updated to include what happened at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, where a shooter killed 49, he said.

For nearly three hours, dozens of people lined up to speak in favor of the amendment, but the gun lobby stood up to oppose it.

"Under this, if you own a semi-automatic handgun or firearm, you have to surrender it to government with no compensation,'' said Marion Hammer, director of the Florida chapter of the NRA.

Rodriguez countered that the Florida Legislature, which has traditionally avoided antagonizing the NRA, exists in "an alternate universe that tolerates a high level of NRA misinformation."

"It is not about banning all guns,'' he said. "It is not about self-defense in the home. It is not about hunting. This is about weapons of war."

The committee sided with Hammer and voted the amendment down.

It was a frustrating but predictable development for the hundreds of students, parents and activists who traveled from around the state, many of them wearing orange "#gunreformnow" T-shirts. They gathered on the steps of the Capitol for a rain-soaked rally an hour before the meeting.

Bella Urbina, a 10th grader at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said two weeks ago her school "became a statistic for gun violence." The group arrived in Tallahassee Monday "to add a story to that statistic, a story that ends in a better and safer America," she said.

The proposal takes the state's current handgun law and puts all guns under those restrictions (under current law, rifles are exempt), raising the age for all purchases from 18 to 21, imposing a three-day waiting period for all purchases and requiring a background check. But by relying on current law, the bill also leaves in place the same gun loopholes. For example, anyone who purchases a gun from a private seller, online or at an unauthorized gun show does not have to comply with the age limits or background check.

Under the proposal, some of the changes include:

  • Law enforcement could temporarily seize a firearm or ammunition from anyone determined by law enforcement to pose a “potential danger to himself or herself or others.”
  • The legal age for purchasing any firearm would increase from 18 to 21 but allow for the possession of firearms for those who are younger. Exceptions include allowing anyone who has obtained a concealed weapons permit or who has completed a certified hunting training program to buy a gun without a background check or waiting period. Those who are in the military or law enforcement or are correctional officers also are exempt from the age limits for semi-automatic rifles.
  • Ban the purchase of bump stocks, the devices used to raise the fire power of a semi-automatic weapon to match an automatic weapon. Unlike a similar House bill, the Senate does not ban the possession of bump stocks, creating a loophole that allows for the purchase and possession of bump stocks online or out of state.
  • Increase school resource officers to close the gap that now funds only 1,500 resource officers for 3,800 schools.
  • Create a commission to investigate the Parkland shooting and come back next year to make recommendations.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the Fort Myers Republican who chairs the Rules Committee, struggled to keep order in the meeting room, frequently interrupting speakers who did not address the amendment and scolding the crowd for jeering, cheering and booing.

"Shame on all of you,'' said Andy Oliver, pastor of the Allendale United Methodist Church of St. Petersburg. "The blood is on your hands."

He was among dozens of angry and often unruly activists who pleaded with the committee to reject the arguments of the gun lobby and start working for restrictions on the guns.

Robin Straus, a pediatrician from Miami-Dade County, urged the committee to look at the pictures and coroner's reports of the victims of the Parkland shooting. "Why when we have these mass shooting do we not ban the cause?'' she asked. "It is time to bring logic into this argument. These are weapons of war. There is no place in our society for them."

Sam Scharf, 17, a junior from Plant High School in Tampa, was among many who echoed that sentiment.

"I am not here to say we need to take away all guns but we must revise the Second Amendment,'' he told the committee. "Military weapons designed to kill as many people as possible in a short amount of time aren't needed for hunting and protecting."

He said his generation has been motivated to demand change and stay engaged.

"For those who can't take us kids seriously, our generation went from eating Tide Pods to creating a national movement of guns in the span of a month,'' he said, as the crowd erupted in cheers. "And some of us will be the ones coming for your spots in the future."

Senate Republicans voted together in support of the plan, but a divide emerged among Senate Democrats, who derive strong support from the teachers unions.

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens and three of his Democratic colleagues said they opposed the bill because it fails to address the weapons ban and includes a provision that allows school districts to work with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to train and arm teachers to carry concealed weapons in the classroom.

"I really really urge you to think about the unintended consequences,'' Braynon pleaded with the committee. He said the proposal will disproportionately affect children of color. "Please don't make it dangerous for my children and children who look like my children to go to school."

By contrast, Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said he supported the measure because pieces of it would make progress.

"My biggest concern about this bill is will we really fund this bill?'' he asked. He said he feared that districts will be required to arm teachers to be able to afford the proper number of security officers.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the sponsor of the bill, said he will have an amendment on the bill when it come before the Senate Appropriations Committee that will set aside $200 million in one-time state funds to pay for improving and hardening schools and another $200 million in recurring costs to pay for providing more mental health counselors for students and families.

Staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.