‘Toxic’ gun fight opens emotional and political wounds in Legislature

Bills died. Budget projects got killed. Republicans risked attracting primary opponents and Democrats opened an emotional divide as the Florida Legislature advanced a moderate proposal to limit guns and address school safety.
Left to right: Rep. Jose Oliva, R- Miami Gardens, Rep. Mike La Rosa, R- St. Cloud, and Rep. Paul Renner, R- Palm Coast, listen to debate on Democrats. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Left to right: Rep. Jose Oliva, R- Miami Gardens, Rep. Mike La Rosa, R- St. Cloud, and Rep. Paul Renner, R- Palm Coast, listen to debate on Democrats. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published March 7, 2018|Updated March 7, 2018

Florida legislators listened to the Parkland families and moved a bill to respond to the Feb. 14 shooting with unprecedented speed, but the process was not without pain or political risk for many legislators.

First there were the inconveniences: The Senate met in a rare Saturday session last weekend and devoted eight hours to debating dozens of amendments on SB 7026, a package of proposals aimed at strengthening school security and addressing mental health issues that surfaced because of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Then there is the overtime: Lawmakers conceded they had spent so much time and political energy responding to the Parkland shooting that they missed the deadline to complete the budget by the time session ends on Friday and must return this weekend or next week to vote it out.

Bills died. An effort to reach a compromise on a multi-billion dollar gaming agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida got sidetracked. Millions of dollars of local projects that had been included in the House and Senate budgets were slashed as legislators looked for the $400 million to pay for the school safety and mental health programs for the Parkland bill. Both sides lost pet projects.

But perhaps most painful for legislators was the political friction the emotional vote caused, and the internal rifts that surfaced within the Republican and Democratic caucuses as the most conservative Republicans joined with the most liberal Democrats to oppose the bill. The bill will raise the age to buy a gun from 18 to 21 and impose a minimum three-day waiting period on gun purchases — measures conservatives said go too far, and liberals say don't go far enough.

"There is nothing convenient about this," said Rep. Tom Leek, a conservative Republican from Ormond Beach, who spoke in support of the bill Wednesday. He said he received thousands of emails from both sides, including one in which the writer researched that Leek had two daughters "and said he hoped I suffered the same fate as those parents of Parkland."

"I care very little about what other people think of me," he added. "I've decided that I will do everything I possibly can to bring something home."

In the Senate, Republican leaders worked hard to collect enough votes to narrowly pass the measure 20-18, including 17 Republicans. Those who faced the possibility of receiving a primary challenge from a candidate backed by the gun lobby voted no, while most Republicans who face term limits or who don't have an election until 2020 voted for it.

Within minutes of their vote, several Republicans received a gift hand delivered to their offices from a gun rights activist and member of the Libertarian Party: a jar of tar and feathers. "The tar and feather enemy of freedom award," read the label.

"If I have a primary, I'll have a primary," said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who voted for the bill. She said she has received messages from the National Rifle Association, as well as emails from constituents on both sides. "But it was the right thing to do."

Three Senate Democrats, who were among those opposed to a plan to arm teachers, traded votes on a proposal that was unpopular with their colleagues in exchange for an amendment that took most teachers out of a plan to arm school personnel.

They voted with Republicans to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to ask voters to make it more difficult to raise taxes and immediately drew the ire of some unions and other left-leaning organizations. Those three votes were criticial to the final vote of SB 7026 in the Senate.

The prospect of a narrow vote increased the pressure on Democrats in the House, where Broward Democrats joined with Republican leaders and worked for support of the bill, arguing they couldn't walk away with nothing and that the Parkland families were demanding action.

But several black Democrats argued that the optional proposal to put armed personnel in Florida schools was "a poison pill" that would disproportionately threaten blacks students or even black armed school personnel whom law enforcement may misidentify as the gunman in a active shooter situation.

"It's hard for people not to think about the kids in their own community," said Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale. "What happened in Parkland breaks my heart. but look at last year and see how many people died of gun violence in Parkland. It's zero and yet you come to my community.Gun violence is a daily worry."

They pointed to the fact that for six years Democrats have filed legislation aimed at curbing gun violence, restricting access to powerful rifles like the one used by Nikolas Cruz to kill 17 students and teachers, and closing loopholes in the state's background check laws. Not one of their bills has ever gotten a hearing, and House Democrats have begun reciting the bill filed this year before their caucus meetings.

"Seventeen proposals that never saw the light of day," said House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa on Wednesday. "We honor the 17 lives that were lost."

Cruz and others urged the Democrats to vote as a block to oppose the bill and force House leaders to remove the provision that would arm school personnel. But a bitterly divided House Democratic caucus voted 21-9 Wednesday to vote against the bill, even though several promised to break the caucus.

The caucus divide opened up raw feelings that often simmer below the surface within the Democratic caucus.

House Democrats met Monday night at Livingston's Steakhouse in Tallahasseee, and discussed whether to take a caucus position and oppose the school safety bill because it includes the provision to arm teachers. But when some Broward Democrats said they couldn't leave the session with nothing, several black caucus members got angry.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat who represents Parkland and was at the Monday night meeting agreed with the concerns of many black lawmakers.

"Some of it is not untrue," he said of their concerns that the issues of gun violence have not been sufficiently addressed by members of either party. He opposes the proposal to allow schools to train and arm school personnel but argues that voting against the bill was a vote with the National Rifle Association — and against the families of Parkland.

"These parents are smart," Moskowitz said. "They know this is political."

Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said that Democrats see political opportunity in the gun control fight, but so do Republicans. Because the provision to arm school officials is a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is likely to use it to campaign in a Republican primary for governor, it was unlikely House Republicans will remove the plan to arm school officials, Jenne said.

"I think polling for primaries is driving this right now," he said, noting that both Corcoran and the governor have the same pollster and the governor supports it while Corcoran opposes it. "They're doing completely different things because one is worried about the general and one is worried about a primary."

The bitter divide over guns in Florida's Legislature reflects the divide in the nation, said Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, who represents the Parkland community. She said Wednesday she was deeply disappointed in her colleagues choosing to take a caucus position against the bill she supports.

"This topic is so toxic that is the reason why this nation and individual states can't come to a resolution," she said. "But there are options on the table that Democrats have been fighting for for decades.

"So do you take what we have been fighting for — and what the rest of the nation has failed to do — or do you reject it because you didn't get it all?"