Florida Republicans are taking up gun control. But this isn’t 2018.

Like it has since the Parkland massacre, the gun debate is growing fierce in Tallahassee. But there are some significant changes this year.
State Rep. Adam Hattersley, D-Riverview, speaks before volunteers with the gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action outside the Florida Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.
State Rep. Adam Hattersley, D-Riverview, speaks before volunteers with the gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action outside the Florida Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. [ [LAWRENCE MOWER | Tampa Bay Times] ]
Published Jan. 24, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — About 400 parents and students in red shirts met and posed with lawmakers, walked the halls of the Capitol and chanted “BACKGROUND CHECKS” outside.

Since the 2018 Parkland shooting, scenes like this one have become a familiar sight in Tallahassee.

But one group of activists has been conspicuously absent from this year’s stage: the students whose action following the massacre at their school prompted the most significant gun control laws in Florida in a generation.

Lawmakers are gearing up for another battle over guns this session, but this year is far different than two years ago.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School aren’t hosting “die-ins” outside the House and Senate chambers. The governor isn’t pushing for it. And the National Rifle Association is hardly alone in resisting it.

This year’s debate does something rare for these parts: Pitting Republicans against Republicans on one of the most controversial topics of the day and during a high-profile election year, no less.

Already, it’s turned nasty.

Last week, Donald Trump, Jr. accused Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, of being a “stone cold RINO” — “Republican In Name Only” — after the conservative site Brietbart revived a 2018 Times story that Galvano had received $200,000 from Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Everytown gave an additional $300,000 to Galvano a month later.

“The last thing Florida Republicans need is a liberal, gun-grabbing Bloomberg minion leading them in the state Senate,” Trump Jr. said.

And this week, the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, which represents the libertarian wing of the state GOP, sent thousands of anti-gun control mailers targeting Galvano and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, in bold white font.

After the Parkland massacre, Galvano led the Legislature’s response, which bucked the NRA for the first time in decades. The subsequent legislation, signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott, raised the minimum age for owning a weapon to 21, imposed a three-day waiting period for gun purchases and allowed for police to seize someone’s firearms.

This year, Galvano’s goals are more modest: close the so-called “gun show loophole” by requiring all person-to-person sales at gun shows go through a background check. And for all other private-party sales, both the buyer and seller would have to fill out a form that’s notarized attesting the buyer is legally able to buy the weapon.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, left, and current Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, left, and current Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

He tapped Lee to craft the legislation and vowed he would fight for it this session.

“That was a very significant request I made,” Galvano said. “I think it would be a positive to have that become our law.”

The bill has passed one Senate committee, but opposition is building. House Speaker José Oliva said it “probably will not move very far” in his chamber. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who campaigned saying he would have vetoed the Parkland legislation, has not voiced support for it, although he came to Galvano’s defense this week against Trump, Jr.’s accusations.

“Let me tell you, I’ve worked with the guy. He’s a strong supporter of the president (Trump). He’s not a supporter of Bloomberg,” DeSantis said.

The governor is perhaps the biggest difference from two years ago, Lee said. In 2018, Scott was in a close race for the U.S. Senate, and the Parkland legislation had his “full-throated support.”

DeSantis hasn’t come out against it, but Lee said if the bill stops advancing through committees, it’s usually because someone in the governor’s office or leadership doesn’t like it.

“I speak ‘Capitol’ pretty well," said Lee, a former Senate president. “And I get where everybody’s at.”

Like last time, the NRA’s top Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, has come out against this year’s bill, calling it “nothing less than gun control on steroids." But Lee believes the group has been actively trying to work behind the scenes to build opposition.

“The NRA’s done an excellent job of deflecting and not being the face of this issue, deferring to the Republican Liberty Caucus and others to assist them in building out, so they’re not the only focal point of the opposition,” Lee said.

Then there are the activists. Two years ago, furious students from around the state were a near-daily presence in the final weeks of session.

This year, March For Our Lives Florida, the organization created following the Parkland shooting, isn’t planning demonstrations in Tallahassee for this year’s bills.

“I don’t think that our support will come in the form of a big rally or a press conference,” said Alyssa Ackbar, the organization’s state director. “Most of those rallies and public demonstrations have been to call on legislators to take action.”

Lawmakers are taking action this year, she said, a sign that they recognize the power of the youth vote.

“Our legislators know that we do have power, so it’s not surprising that they’re scared and acting accordingly,” Ackbar said.

But whether Republicans need that pressure this session remains to be seen.

“I would hope we don’t need to always have external pressure to make the right decisions,” Galvano said.

On Thursday, about 400 members of Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action rallied in the Capitol anyway. Among them was Sari Kaufman, 17, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who came to Tallahassee two years ago.

She said she probably won’t be back up to see this year’s gun legislation through. The debate over gun control will be “incremental,” she said, but already, activists have scored a major win.

“It used to be third-rail politicking," she said. “Now it’s front and center.”

Information from the News Service of Florida and Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.