The Florida Legislature’s annual session is barely under way, and the National Rifle Association’s Marion Hammer already is angry. That’s a good sign. It means Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa is headed in the right direction with modest legislation that would require background checks of more gun buyers. The proposed requirements should be more robust, but they may reflect what is politically possible at the moment and they would be an improvement over the status quo.
Lee, who has an independent streak, was handed the unenviable assignment by Senate President Bill Galvano to come up with a response to the August mass shootings at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and a bar in Dayton, Ohio. After members of the Senate’s Infrastructure and Security Committee that Lee chairs could not even have a candid conversation last fall about gun safety, the Republican turned his focus toward improving background checks. Closing the so-called "gun-show loophole'' has popular support, and it should not be that difficult.
Yet nothing about gun safety comes easily in Tallahassee, where Hammer has cowed lawmakers for decades as the NRA’s chief lobbyist. The legislation unanimously approved by Lee’s committee this week, SB 7028, narrowly addresses the gun show loophole. It would require sellers at public events throughout Florida who are not federally licensed to obtain criminal background checks of buyers -- just as the federally licensed sellers are required to obtain. (Hillsborough and Pinellas counties already have this requirement.) The unlicensed seller could pay a fee to a licensed seller to cover the costs of seeking the background check. That is more than reasonable.
For private gun sales that don’t occur at gun shows, flea markets or other public events, the legislation would require some new paperwork. The gun seller would have to check the buyer’s government-issued identification, such as a driver’s license, to confirm they are at least 21 years old. The seller also would have to keep records that include the date of each sale and the make, model and serial number of the gun. An affidavit would be signed by the purchaser that is notarized and includes answers to a list of questions aimed at ensuring the buyer can legally purchase a firearm. That’s definitely better than nothing, although there is no requirement the seller do anything with the form.
Ideally, background checks would be required for all gun sales regardless of whether the seller is federally licensed or where the sale occurs. It’s clear that background checks work. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports background checks prevented more than 3,500 would-be gun buyers from completing the purchase in 2018 because the checks revealed they had a felony conviction. While more than 96 percent of the FDLE inquiries were approved, the small portion that were blocked could have saved lives.
Yet even the Senate legislation’s "trust-me'' provisions for private gun sales drew the NRA’s wrath. Hammer called it "gun control on steroids.'' That is absurd. This is a good-faith effort to accommodate gun owners who complain they do not want to perform background checks on friends they have known for years in order to legally sell them firearms. They can at least record some basic information.
There is solid support among Florida voters for universal background checks of gun buyers, limits on high-capacity gun magazines and bans on assault weapons. The least state lawmakers should do is close the gun show loophole as the Senate legislation envisions. And they should not feel compelled to first get the approval of Marion Hammer.
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