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A rare sight: Republicans for gun safety | Editorial

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos and state Sen. Tom Lee speak up. When will others?
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos; Florida state Sen. Tom Lee presides over the Senate's committee on infrastructure and security in Tallahassee, Fla., Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. The committee is considering new legislation to help address mass violence. (AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan) [Times files/Associated Press]
Published Sep. 20

As Congress stalls and the Florida Legislature hides on gun safety, there are rare Republicans who have the courage to speak up. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos called on Congress last week to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. State Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa suggested the Legislature could at least require universal background checks of gun purchasers. Where are the other Republicans who have lost their voices and their willingness to act on a national and state priority?

Cretekos, a former longtime aide to the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, has had his Republican credentials well-established for decades. As mayor, he generally sticks to local issues. But he called on his fellow Clearwater City Council members to ask Congress to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines, embrace universal background checks and pass a national red flag law to makes it easier for law enforcement to take guns from people who are a danger to themselves or others. The council’s resolution approved Thursday night did not go quite that far, but the mayor’s point was made."I’ve gone to church, I’ve prayed,'' Cretekos said. "My prayers aren’t working.''

If only there were more than a prayer that the Legislature would do something significant on gun safety. Following the August mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, Senate President Bill Galvano drafted Lee to explore a possible response. It’s not unreasonable to suspect a set-up for Lee and window dressing for voters, with most of the Republican Senate leadership sitting out the gun safety debate and House Republicans stunningly quiet. Against that backdrop, Lee deserves credit for even suggesting lawmakers could close the so-called gun-show loophole that allows gun purchasers to avoid background checks if they buy from sellers who are not federally licensed.

Yet the Senate committee meeting on gun safety that Lee chaired was predictably disappointing. Other Republican senators and speakers avoided candidly talking about what Lee called “the elephant in this conversation”: gun safety reforms such as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that are supported by most voters. A state attorney, a former police chief and a sheriff were all but mute. Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, even tried a misdirection play by pointing to hijacked airliners and motor vehicles as lethal weapons. Memo to the senator: Hijacked airliners and motor vehicles did not kill 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The killers were armed with semi-automatic assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.

But the award for most disturbingly disingenuousness during the committee’s wasted afternoon goes to Rick Swearingen, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He questioned the usefulness of universal background checks. Never mind the gunman in last month’s shootings around Odessa and Midland failed a background check for a gun purchase in 2014 -- and later bought an AR-15 style rifle in a private purchase that did not require a background check. Swearingen also brushed aside banning assault rifles or high capacity magazines. Never mind that after the federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, the deaths in gun massacres soared. Or that the committee presentation by Florida State University professors noted mass shootings are becoming deadlier.

Of course, Washington is no better than Tallahassee on gun safety. It’s actually worse; Florida enacted a red flag law after the Douglas High massacre last year that enables law enforcement officers to more easily take guns away from people considered a danger to themselves or others by seeking a court order. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to stall, and a proposal on background checks for gun buyers floated by the Trump administration is too timid and already in trouble. It’s only been a month since the mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, but most Republicans in the Legislature and Congress can’t wait to move on.

Voters in Florida and the nation are not moving on. They are demanding action on gun safety, and Republicans such as Cretekos and Lee deserve credit for answering the call. What will it take for more of their Republican colleagues to find their voices -- and their backbones?

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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