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Gunshots and gun debates: neither seem to be going away

Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller speaks during a public debate Wednesday over whether to remove Hillsborough's Confederate monument outside the old county courthouse in downtown Tampa in 2017. [CHARLIE KAIJO   |   Times]
Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller speaks during a public debate Wednesday over whether to remove Hillsborough's Confederate monument outside the old county courthouse in downtown Tampa in 2017. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Published Mar. 7, 2018

They sat side by side inside the Hillsborough County Commission chambers, with nothing between them except a nation's lingering shame.

If you're looking to understand America's ongoing gun debate, it was neatly explained Wednesday morning in a five-minute faceoff in Tampa. One politician, Les Miller, arguing that gun control was the only hope for safety. Another politician, Victor Crist, insisting safety could be achieved only through a well-armed society.

In the meantime, the bodies pile up.

That's neither flippant nor an exaggeration. Gun homicides in the United States are off the charts compared to other developed countries, according to the World Health Organization.

Gun ownership is also far higher in America than most anywhere else.

Those facts are not really in dispute.

Just the solutions.

And so we are treated to a farcical charade in Tallahassee and circular debates everywhere else. And the best we can hope for are incremental, and mostly insignificant, steps such as Miller's proposal to extend the waiting period for gun purchases in Hillsborough from three days to five.

Are we really that divided? Yes.

Is a solution impossible? Perhaps.

Is there any hope at all? A little.

The first two questions are both rooted in the same problem. With so many weapons already in the hands of Americans, there is no single piece of legislation that will immediately fix our gun problem.

Law-abiding citizens don't want to give up their guns because too many criminals have guns. And criminals keep getting guns because America's penchant for producing weapons is unquenchable.

That conundrum is so entrenched that we now argue by rote. We neither listen nor comprehend.

Miller's first proposal Wednesday was to ban assault weapons in Hillsborough. Due to state law, that idea was pretty much a nonstarter, and Miller's colleagues did him a favor by refusing to consider it.

(Had the proposal passed, Miller and the rest of the commission would have been subject to fines and removal from office. Because it did not, County Attorney Chip Fletcher said Miller should not face sanctions from Gov. Rick Scott.)

What was interesting is Miller emphatically pointed out that he was not antigun. He was not trying to limit handguns, shotguns or hunting rifles. He was seeking an assault weapons ban similar to one that everyone in the nation was following just 14 years ago.

And yet Crist felt compelled to make the only-a-good-guy-with-a-gun argument. I'm not belittling Crist's stance, I'm just saying it did not address the points Miller was making.

Like lab rats conditioned to behave in certain ways, the current crop of politicians is reacting to what voters have indicated in the past. And that's why change in Tallahassee is so difficult to achieve.

So where is the hope?

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It comes from outside. From the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who have brought new voices to the argument. It comes from energized voters. It comes from you.

Polls already indicate that American views on guns are leaning toward sensible reforms. If those polls translate to actual election results in November, there's a chance that lawmakers will begin to adjust their intractable positions.

Even so, Miller is not hopeful. After spending 14 years in the state Legislature, and seeing the influence of the gun lobby, he said current trends are probably illusory.

"I'm glad you've got some optimism," Miller told me after Wednesday's meeting.

"But knowing what the NRA can do … as long as they have those dollars they're willing to spread around, I don't think you're going to see the Legislature passing anything meaningful."

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