Better gun background checks ‘makes sense,’ key Florida Republican says

Tom Lee chairs the Florida Senate’s Infrastructure and Security Committee, which has been tasked by the Senate president with coming up with a response to the most recent spate of mass shootings.
Florida Senator Tom Lee, R- Thonotosassa. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Florida Senator Tom Lee, R- Thonotosassa. [SCOTT KEELER | Times] [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]
Published Sept. 16, 2019|Updated Sept. 16, 2019

A top state Republican state senator said Monday that closing loopholes in the state’s gun background check system “makes the most sense” for lawmakers to tackle this legislative session.

“Of all the things I’ve reviewed, and all the ideas that have come forward, that’s the one that seems to me to make the most common sense, not just to me, but to the average Floridian,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa.

But whether his Republican colleagues will support it is much less certain, he said.

“I don’t know if there’s any appetite for (improved background checks) in the process,” Lee said. “I honestly don’t.”

Lawmakers are heading into what promises to be a contentious 2020 election, and gun control is a topic that most Republicans are reluctant to address in the next legislative session, which begins in January. Most are averse to antagonizing a well-organized gun lobby that could complicate reelection efforts.

RELATED STORY: Nothing’s off the table, Florida senator says on potential gun reforms

Lee chairs the Senate’s Infrastructure and Security Committee, which has been tasked by Senate President Bill Galvano with coming up with a response to the most recent spate of mass shootings.

His comments in support of tougher background checks came Monday at the end of the committee’s first hearing, where a panel of police and experts had only one idea to stop mass shooters: ask the public to report suspicious behavior, and train police to better respond to those reports.

For two and a half hours, they largely danced around what Lee called “the elephant in this conversation”: people who take advantage of the easy access to high-powered weapons to kill people in public places.

RELATED STORY: As Florida lawmakers face more pressure on guns, is the NRA up for the fight?

Democrats on the committee repeatedly asked the law enforcement experts to provide their opinions, but they repeatedly refused to answer.

Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, asked whether the state should look at restricting guns to people with stalking or domestic violence convictions.

“That’s an issue that you all are going to need to address,” Phil Archer the state attorney for Brevard and Seminole counties, responded. “I’m not going to jump into that briar-patch.”

The back-and-forth finally led Lee to come out and acknowledge that gun control was “difficult" for them to talk about.

He then asked the panelists to raise their hands.

“Does anybody think we have too many gun laws in Florida right now?” Lee asked.

No one on the panel raised their hands.

Lee then mentioned that after the Parkland shooting, the Legislature broke decades of inaction on gun legislation by raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21.

“Was that a waste of our energy to pass that?” he asked them.

Rick Swearingen, the commissioner for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, then jumped in to say that he doubted enhanced background checks would make a difference at stopping a mass shooting.

“How does that help us in this scenario with mass shooters? I don’t know that that makes a difference,” Swearingen said. “I don’t think, statistically, that changes the game here.”

But both Swearingen and Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight, who was representing the Florida Sheriffs Association, acknowledged that the public would probably like “consistency” on background checks.

Florida Republicans’ own polling has shown support — even by gun owners — for a ban on military-style assault weapons, a far more restrictive measure that is unlikely to even get a hearing next session.

Lee said afterward that tightening up gun background checks “might have the best shot at enhancing public safety in our state.”

Florida law requires a background check when buying a gun at a gun dealer. But background checks are not required for private party sales, including private party sales at gun shows, or for people who are allowed to carry concealed weapons.

He said he wanted to hear more from police about where they stood on that and other gun-control measures.

“If they don’t think that additional common-sense gun safety legislation would be helpful, just say it," Lee said. “If you do, say that. To say nothing, you don’t get much out of that.”

The one suggestion Swearingen and the other police had was to adopt a statewide “threat assessment” model like one the U.S. Secret Service created in the 1990s.

The model, which he said state police were already working on, would rely on the public to report more suspicious behavior, and train police to investigate and intervene.

Swearingen said the model is not designed to go after people of a certain ideology or type. He and other panelists also dismissed the common refrain from Congressional Republicans that shooters are mentally ill.

“(The Secret Service) attempted to develop a profile, and they failed," Swearingen said. "Because there is no profile.”

Instead, he said the model is intended to look for the common traits of mass shooters: they usually have had multiple stress points in their lives in the year leading up to the attack, they spend time preparing for the attack and their friends or family often see warning signs.

Swearingen said the model would have “most likely” stopped the shooting at a Tallahassee yoga studio late last year, which left two women dead and five other people injured.

“He had several indicators that he was on a pathway to violence,” Swearingen said.

Afterward, Swearingen declined to answer any questions by the reporters about the system, or how it would have prompted police to stop the shooter.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.