Florida Democrats force gun vote in Legislature

A group of lawmakers who sent letters reached the 20 percent threshold required to trigger a poll of the entire Legislature. If three-fifths of lawmakers agree, a special session will be held in September.
Protesters ask for gun reform at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale during a 2018 rally. [AL DIAZ | Miami Herald]
Protesters ask for gun reform at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale during a 2018 rally. [AL DIAZ | Miami Herald] [ Al Diaz ]
Published Aug. 20, 2019|Updated Aug. 22, 2019

After two more mass shootings claiming 31 lives renewed a national call to curb gun violence, Florida House Democrats are forcing a vote on whether lawmakers should return to Tallahassee for a special session focused on gun reform.

Forty state representatives sent letters to Secretary of State Laurel Lee calling for a special session to address a variety of gun-related topics, including universal background checks, safe gun storage, a ban on high-capacity magazines and the creation of a task force in urban areas to address day-to-day gun violence.

The group of lawmakers who sent letters make up more than 20 percent of the chambers 120 members, triggering a poll of the entire Legislature. If 60 percent — or 96 members— of both chambers agree, a special session will be held ahead of this year’s committee weeks, which begin Sept. 16. They have the next week to submit their vote to Lee.

“Recent events in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, serve as a stark reminder of the inadequate measures taken to date to safeguard our citizenry against similar gun-related violence via the passage of common sense gun-reform proposals,” the letters said. “The targeted killing of Hispanic/Latino citizens by a domestic terrorist in El Paso, Texas, should compel us to take immediate action to safeguard Florida’s residents, including more than 4 million Hispanic/Latino residents.”

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The effort was spearheaded by a South Miami Democrat, Rep. Javier Fernández, who met with stakeholders in Coral Gables last Wednesday to come up with demands for the special session. Various gun safety groups like the local chapters of Moms Demand Action, Moms for Justice, Rise Up, the local Parent Teachers Association and representatives of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence participated. Floridians seem to support the effort, too. A June Quinnipiac poll that showed 72 percent of Florida voters want the state to do more to address gun violence and 57 percent support a ban on the sale of assault weapons.

“[The people of Florida] deserve a Legislature who will do all it can to protect them,” Fernández said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s too late for those impacted by gun violence yesterday, but if we act quickly we can stem this tide and save lives.”

The numbers aren’t in the Democrats’ favor. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the House 73-47, and in the state Senate 23-17. The Senate President and the Speaker of the House also have the power to convene the Legislature in special session, but it’s unlikely that will happen.

President Bill Galvano instructed a key committee to “review and better understand the various factors involved in mass shootings” like white nationalism, but said through a spokesperson Tuesday that he “does not support calling a special session.”

RELATED STORY: Florida’s Senate president vows to tackle mass shootings, white nationalism

Speaker José Oliva is also opposed to convening before the official committee weeks next month.

“While I’m sure this request for special session is sincere and well-intentioned, we must always strive to do something right rather than just do something,” he wrote in a tweet. “We have committee weeks coming up and regular session shortly thereafter. I have no doubt that there will be robust discussions about our Second Amendment rights, mental health, and their importance in our society.

Senate Democrats, who will have the chance to vote on whether they will convene for a special session, are supportive of the move.

Sen. Janet Cruz, of Tampa, said she hopes her colleagues will vote to convene and treat gun violence “as the emergency that it is.”

There have been than 1,100 gun-related homicides in Florida since the Parkland massacre in February 2018.

“When a child is shot every 17 hours, when almost 1,000 people lost their lives last year and when our schools or public spaces are under constant threat of an attack, there is undoubtedly a crisis when it comes to the epidemic of gun violence affecting Florida,” Cruz said.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, of Miami Gardens, said he has unsuccessfully pushed for similar special sessions in the past. While he is not overwhelmingly hopeful, he says it’s important for constituents to see where their lawmakers fall on the issue.

“Even in my area, we have people who are Republicans who say this is something that needs to happen,” he said. “I don’t think that it’s become a standard thing for Republicans to stand up to the NRA yet ... but children are dying in my district every day.”

Miami Sen. Annette Taddeo was more hopeful for action from the Legislature, pointing out that many of the actions proposed have wide public support.

“As we continue to pray, let’s follow our prayers with real action,” she said. “I believe Floridians are rightfully looking for more than talk.”

Sen. Jason Pizzo, of Miami Beach, said he’d jump in the car and drive to Tallahassee at a moment’s notice if it meant gun reform and an urban violence task force.

“I’d also be bringing the homicide numbers of black and brown [people] and the grief of dozens of mothers who don’t know who killed there kids with me,” he said.

Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, of Miami, said he’ll support the motion as well, as he has done in the past.

“For a long time Republican leadership has been so far out of step with the public on commonsense reform,” he said. “We’ve been doing everything we can to break the stranglehold the NRA has on policy in Tallahassee. When we succeed, the people of Florida will be safer.”

It isn’t the first time Democrats have pushed for a special session on gun control, Rodríguez noted.

In 2018, Democrats unsuccessfully tried to convene a special session to amend or repeal Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, which allows people to use deadly force if they believe they are in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. The push came after a white man killed an unarmed black man in a Clearwater parking lot.

A similar push to change the law failed after Trayvon Martin’s death in 2013.

When 49 people were killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, yet another effort was made. Democratic legislators called for a special session to consider restrictions on guns but fell far short of the required number of votes needed to reconvene.

“This, for me, is personal,” said MJ Wright, of the Moms Demand Action chapter in Miami. She was at the meeting last week to discuss the effort by Democratic lawmakers.

Wright, whose son Jerry was killed in Pulse, said she is optimistic that Republicans will hear Democrats this time around.

“Republicans have children,” said Wright, who is a registered Republican. “I am hoping and I am pleading. Please do not let politics get in the way.”

Romania Dukes, a Cutler Bay mother who lost her son De’Michael to gun violence in 2014, was also part of the group who met with lawmakers last week. Dukes, who founded Mothers for Justice, said she hopes urban, everyday gun violence is addressed either during a special session or otherwise. It’s the mass shootings that tend to draw more attention from Tallahassee and the media, she said, but it’s the same pain all mothers feel.

She is hopeful about the urban task force proposed in the special session request.

“I get so many phone calls about a shooting or a death. It’s tearing me apart,” she said. “Sit in your seat and think about how this could be your child. Gun violence affects all of us, no matter where you stay or what color you are. We live in different times now.

The Legislature’s next regular session starts on Jan. 14.