Florida's political views on gun laws are complex, divergent

Published Dec. 18, 2012

WASHINGTON — Underscoring the politics in the debate following the Connecticut school massacre, Florida officials offered divergent views Monday, from stricter gun laws to arming teachers to focusing instead on mental health.

Others, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, said it was too early to react or remained mute against rising calls for action.

"We cannot tolerate this any longer. Congress has within its ability to bring up common sense gun regulation very quickly," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, echoing growing Democratic support for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

She blamed paralysis on gun control across the political spectrum, including President Barack Obama, who signaled in a speech Sunday in Newtown, Conn., that he would take up the issue after four years of avoiding it.

"The president should have been stronger," Castor said. "But from what I heard in his voice and saw in his eyes last night, he is determined."

Getting there is not easy. Support for new gun laws has not risen after other mass shootings, and the National Rifle Association spent more than 10 times as much on lobbying as gun control groups in 2011 and the first three quarters of 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Spring Hill, argued more gun control would not help "one iota," saying an ammunition clip can be changed in seconds and that some hunting rifles are more lethal than the military-style Bushmaster rifle used by the Connecticut shooter.

Nugent said more emphasis should be paid to identifying and treating mental illness, an issue he has already been working on.

"You have to be able to identify and make sure these folks that pose that risk get the best treatment they can get," said Nugent, who spent nearly four decades in law enforcement, including as Hernando County sheriff, before being elected to Congress.

More gun control seems unlikely at the state level, where lawmakers have passed some of the most NRA-friendly legislation in the nation, from the 2005 "stand your ground" law, to 2011's law preventing physicians from asking patients if they own guns and have stored them properly in the home.

Sometime this week, the state will issue its millionth active concealed weapons permit, a milestone trumpeted last week by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Last spring, lawmakers gave outgoing House Speaker Dean Cannon a Beretta 686 shotgun as a gift for his service.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, chair of the legislative committee that will hear the bills that would regulate firearms, said allowing more people to carry guns will prevent future shootings. He said prohibiting guns at schools made people less safe.

"If you empower someone, they will and they can deter a shooter," Baxley said. When asked which mass shootings were deterred by someone carrying a gun, Baxley said he didn't know. He said he reads emails that said assailants were stopped by people with guns.

Baxley, R-Ocala, doesn't have plans to propose legislation allowing for school officials to carry guns, he said, because he chairs the committee.

The National Rifle Association's top official in Florida, Marion Hammer, remained silent Monday on the shootings.

During a five-hour meeting among Hillsborough County state lawmakers, the subject barely came up. Hillsborough delegation chair Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said sufficient time was spent discussing the shooting.

"We've had quite a bit of conversation about that actually," Young said during a lunch break. "We started our meeting with a moment of silence for the families and victims of that horrible shooting."

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said it wasn't the time to discuss the issue and the Florida Sheriffs Association issued a release that steered clear of any suggestions that the group supports tougher gun laws.

The governor did not want to talk policy.

"I think the first thing you always do is you stop and say to yourself, 'Why do these things happen? What is the logical thing to do?' But I think right now the biggest thing is to be caring about all these families," Scott said.

In Washington, there is more momentum on the issue than there has been in years. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., announced she would push for a comprehensive ban on assault weapons, while others focused on ammunition clips.

Gun control supporters got an unexpected boost from two gun-rights Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia.

"I don't know anybody in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle," Manchin said on MSNBC. "I don't know anybody who needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting. I mean, these are things that need to be talked about."

A spokesman for Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said: "Sen. Nelson is a hunter and supporter of the Second Amendment. But he's voted to ban weapons like AK-47s because he believes they're meant for killing, not for hunting."

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio called for a "serious and comprehensive" review of gun laws.

"He remains a strong supporter of the Second Amendment right to safely and responsibly bear arms," spokesman Alex Conant said. "But he has also always been open to measures that would keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. The challenge with gun laws is that by definition criminals do not follow the law. For example, Connecticut's gun laws, some of the strictest in the nation, were not able to prevent this atrocity."

The White House declined to say Monday what measures the president will seek. "It's a complex problem that will require a complex solution," press secretary Jay Carney said.

Times staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.